HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Do all crime fiction readers devour the newspaper? (I still read three a day, and on paper!) Every crime story I see, I think—is that a plot for me? And often, I decide I could never use them, because no one would believe them. Real life is infinitely surprising, terrifying, coincidental, unusual, unique. Crushingly sad.
And—haunting. When we least expect it. What a riveting backstory to day—from the incredibly talented Stephanie Gayle.
How Real Crimes Influenced My Fiction
I’m from a small town. East Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Population: almost 11,000 when I last lived there. That was 1993, the year I graduated high school. A half-year earlier Kent “Rusty” Taber Jr. was stabbed to death in my small town. He lived in an apartment over the funeral home where he worked part-time as an embalmer. It was very big news. People weren’t stabbed to death in my small town. And the funeral home detail? Made it even spookier. Twenty years after that brutal killing, I wrote my first mystery novel, Idyll Threats. And it wasn’t until I was amidst my copyedits that I realized how much Mr. Taber’s murder had influenced my thinking about policing and murder investigations in small towns.
“When are we calling the Staties?” is something that Chief of Police, Thomas Lynch, hears constantly during the murder investigation I created in Idyll Threats. The locals in his small town don’t think his police force with its one and a half detectives, is capable of catching a killer. This is the exact refrain I heard from locals (including my family) during the search for Kent Taber’s killer. “When will the staties be called?” And eventually the staties were contacted to help, though they didn’t crack the case.
Kent Taber was gay. When this became known, it was assumed that fact that must’ve be key to his killing. To be gay was to be other. My protagonist, Thomas Lynch, is gay. And he’s keeping that fact a secret. Because he thinks his homophobic cops can’t handle the truth. This leads him to withhold crucial evidence pertaining to the murder, evidence that threatens to out him. How much did I internalize from Ken Taber’s murder, from small town talk and hateful speech? Impossible to say. But I’m sure it influenced how Thomas Lynch sees his community. And why I bristle when people say, “Oh, it would’ve been no big deal for him to be out.” I recall what a big deal it was, in 1992, to know a man was gay. I set my novel in 1997. The same year Ellen DeGeneres made headlines for telling the world, “I’m Gay.”
My fictional crime is more easily resolved than the true-life crime that inspired it. By book’s end the killer in Idyll Threats is identified and arrested. Kent Taber’s murder remained unsolved until seventeen years later when Christopher Colucci was indicted for the crime. Colucci had worked with Taber. Someone reported that Colucci reacted badly to an advance made by Taber. Five years after the murder, Colucci was involved in a car accident that left him paralyzed. He was deemed incompetent to stand trial due to the mental debilitation that resulted from the accident.
I’d been gone from my hometown so long, the news didn’t reach me. I thought Kent Taber’s killer was still at large. It wasn’t until after I’d finished my novel that I thought to look up the case. It was then that I learned of Colucci’s arrest. And of Mr. Taber’s family’s disappointment at not having Mr. Colucci stand trial for his terrible crime. It made me grateful for my fictional world, where I can dispense justice in a way the real world sometimes cannot.
It took time for me to realize how pivotal one small town murder was in shaping how I thought about crime. I was quicker to realize that my second book, which features Chief Lynch investigating a kidnapping of a small boy, also owes a debt to history. The second biggest crime sensation of my life? The kidnapping and murder of a small boy from a nearby town. I can still see the yellow ribbons tied round the trees, the ribbons that tattered and faded after the boy had been found and buried.
Violent crimes live on in our emotions, our thoughts, and memories. Sometimes more than we realize. And for me, the blood turns to ink and spills out, many years after the original crime.
HANK: Yes, Stephanie, so true... we can “dispense justice in a way the real world sometimes cannot.” And yet we devour the truth, since it’s a path to understanding.
So, Reds and readers, what do you think? And do you still read newspapers? How? Electronically, or on paper?
StephanieGayle’s mystery, Idyll Threats, earned a starred review from Booklist. Her first novel, My Summer of Southern Discomfort, was chosen as one of Redbook’s Top Ten Summer Reads. Her short fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, The Potomac Review, Punchnel’s, and other publications. She’s twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She co-founded the popular Boston reading series, Craft on Draft. She tweets under @stephoflegends.
In the summer of 1997, Thomas Lynch arrives as the new chief of police in Idyll, Connecticut—a town where serious crimes can be counted on one hand. So no one is prepared when Cecilia North is found murdered on a golf course. By chance, Chief Lynch met her mere hours before she was killed. With that lead, the case should be a slam dunk. But there’s a problem. If Lynch tells his detectives about meeting the victim, he’ll reveal his greatest secret—he’s gay.