Saturday, April 12, 2014
"Code of the Hills" and a feisty female prosecutor
HALLIE EPHRON: Nancy Allen knows the Ozarks. She grew up there, and practiced law there for 15 years, trying over 30 jury cases, including murder and sexual offenses. The unique culture and the law come together in her debut novel -- mystery, suspense, and a legal thriller -- "The Code of the Hills: An Ozarks Mystery."
Welcome to Jungle Red, Nancy! The title caught my attention immediately. It brought to mind the infamous "code of silence" that kept murderers protected in Irish-American neighborhoods around Boston.
NANCY ALLEN: Hallie, it’s interesting to hear that the “code of silence” impacted investigation of crime in Boston; and you’re right, it’s the same tradition of “circling the wagons” that my book addresses.In the Ozarks hill country, “the code of the hills” is an unwritten law that permits a man to do what he wants with his land and his family, without outside interference. People aren’t supposed to speak to outsiders about the things that happen within the family circle.
As a prosecutor in the Ozarks, I had to break through that wall of silence and secrecy when I handled cases of incest and sexual abuse. And it was tough. The longstanding treatment of incest as a guarded family secret is part of the generational pattern that permits the crime to continue unchecked in the hill country.
HALLIE: So as a prosecutor, you had to deal with cases like the one in your book.
NANCY: I did indeed. When I returned to my home town in the Ozarks after law school and went to work as assistant prosecutor, I was the only woman on the staff—and the second woman in all of Southwest Missouri to serve as prosecutor. They assigned me an unprecedented number of sex cases, because I was female.
As a trial lawyer, I cut my teeth on incest. Greene County, Missouri, where I have always lived, has the highest rate of sexual abuse in the state; and Missouri has the 5th highest rate of that crime in the nation.
HALLIE: Did you ever feel like you wanted to become the avenging angel that your character is inspired to turn into?
NANCY: Sex crimes involving children are difficult. Unlike adult rapes, where you may have supporting forensic evidence, children don’t pick up a phone and call the police after they’ve been molested by a family member.
They are also draining on an emotional basis, because there is so much at stake. The prosecution of those sex cases became an all-consuming focus for me at that time in my life. Looking back, I do think I became obsessed with the notion that I would single-handedly eliminate the crime.
I did my damnedest—as Elsie does in the book.
HALLIE: Tell us about your fictional assistant prosecutor, Elsie.
NANCY: Though she hails from the Bible Belt, she’s no pinnacle of virtue. I ladled on imperfection with a heavy hand. To blow off steam, she runs—to the local barroom to guzzle beer. At suppertime, she’s likely to pull her car through the Sonic drive-in for a foot-long hot dog.
Her vocabulary would make a sailor blush, and her taste in men turns her mother’s hair gray. And though Elsie’s smart, she stumbles as she works through the case, making legal mistakes that trip her up. But her heart is in the right place; despite her (many) failings, she is passionately determined to see justice done.
HALLIE: I'm fascinated by the setting. Can you give us a taste of its unique flavor (positive and negative).
NANCY: “The Code of the Hills” celebrates the Ozarks — the natural beauty of unspoiled hills and waterways, the romance of the folklore and folk music. The people who live here embody principles of self-sufficiency, and stubbornness, and resistance to change.
But I am not blind to the shortcomings of this country. We have poverty, meth, racism, and sexism. Stubborn resistance to change. Our communities are still firmly patriarchal, running on the “good old boy” system. We’re the Bible Belt, and conservative parts of that culture use religion as a tool to make women an underclass.
HALLIE: What a rich source to work with. Reading your book is a compelling mystery but it’s also a journey to a special place.
Wondering if any of our readers have experienced a variant on that "code of the hills."