Friday, September 20, 2019

What's in Your Rearview?


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HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: A  somewhat thoughtful post today. We all remember Sue Grafton, who, incredibly, died almost two years ago now. We learned a lot from her, of course,  and one of the many things that stays with me is how careful she was about the victims in her stories. She made sure they were real people, that their lives mattered, that they weren’t simply pawns for crime fiction writers, objects for them to use to  get the action going.
 Steven Cooper feels just he same way.  As an investigative reporter, he’s seen those victims—what happened after they were killed—close up and raw, and personal.  And he says, they haunt his fiction,  including his brand new third novel,  VALLEY OF SHADOWS.
And what he says will haunt you, too.  You don’t get to choose what’s in your rearview mirror. 

The Shadows of Death
 There are murders I’ll never forget. Murders that stay with me, that echo through time, that intersect with the muse and find their way into the consciousness of my writing. There are murders that haunt me, that taunt me.
Did they really find the killer? Did the guilty really go to jail? How do the heartbroken heal?
I’ve long since left my life as a crime reporter, long since left my life as an investigative journalist, and long since left those days of clandestine meetings with sources who often shined a light but sometimes came in disguise to thwart my quest for the truth. When a significant part of your career is spent racing from one crime scene to the next, however, the horrors of humanity never fully secrete from your skin. They linger there at the outermost layer. You wonder why. You wonder how. Life never quite looks the same. You hope the ones who grieve get back up on their feet and learn to love again.
You don’t get to choose what’s in your rearview mirror. I’ll never forget Joan Andres. I never knew Joan Andres. I never knew any of the victims. I only heard their life stories in the past tense. Joan Andres was a 27-year-old bright, up-and-coming lawyer in Springfield, Massachusetts. She was shot dead and brutally stabbed one cold, winter night in her apartment in the Forest Park neighborhood of the city. She had been shot once and stabbed twice, I recall. To a reporter hell-bent on accuracy, the number of bullet holes and stab wounds mattered. But she mattered more. This happened more than twenty years ago. And she still matters to me. In part, her story inspired Deadline, a novel I wrote long ago. I thought it would end there on the page. I waited for catharsis. And it came, but only partly.
Murder is profound. It’s explosive, violent, incomprehensible, and so often random. It’s a punch to the gut. Even in the stillness of a crime scene, it rages. It rages through the darkness. It rages through the light. It rages through the minutia of trial. It rages through the verdict. 
I remember, gavel to gavel, the trial in the Joan Andres case. I remember the defense attorney whispering conspiracies in my ear, trying to deflect his client’s guilt. I’m still, all these year later, not convinced of his client’s guilt. A random guy broke into her apartment and shot her in the face? I don’t know. I wasn’t convinced by the evidence. 
The district attorney, nearly foaming at the mouth, all but threw me out of his office when, in a one-on-one interview, I questioned the evidence. Perhaps I had been too easily influenced by the colorful imagination of the defense attorney. I’ll concede to that. But the DA hammered me. Every ounce of vitriol he had ever suppressed about the media he unleashed on me. Lucky me. His anger made my skin crawl. But both sides felt dirty. I didn’t know whom to believe. But I believed Joan. I believed she was too young to die. I believed she was the only one who knew the truth. I believed her soul would never rest in peace.
Murder, quietly or violently, reminds us of the society we live in. We can shut our eyes but we can’t shut out the evil. Murder has a name. It has lots of names. We can’t forget the names. The names of real people make us seek justice, or light, or redemption. Probably all three.
 Joan Andres was a real person to me because Joan Andres was a real person. So was 13-year-old Danny Croteau. And 24-year-old Lisa Ziegert. And 5-year-old Eric Steven Dostie. And 16-year-old Arnaldo Esteras. The grief of Arnaldo’s mother was palpable as she clung to her son’s casket, her body shuddering, her agonizing cries the only sound in the cathedral. The intimacy of grief and despair I was allowed to witness in the Dostie home followed me to my own home, insidiously lurking in my psyche, and informed me, rather emphatically, that it would never fully leave me.
And it hasn’t. It has informed my writing, all of it. It reminds me to be truthful, even in fiction. It reminds me to be respectful of my characters, even the bad ones. It reminds me that making my characters real people requires treating them like real people.
 For all the shade I throw at TV news, and I throw plenty in my new book, Valley of Shadows, I’m grateful for what journalism taught me about accuracy and authenticity. I’m grateful that, while sometimes harrowing, I took that journey into the darker side of the human condition because often the journey taught me regrettable but unforgettable truths about life. The journey introduced me to real people, real lives, and real suffering and it, thus, made me obligated to those truths, obligated to never, ever fake it in my fiction.
I owe that much to the victims and their loved ones.

HANK: Steve is a dear pal, and a terrific writer, and  I’m interviewing him at New England Mobile Book Fair on September 28—y’all come!  He’s not always this outwardly philosophical—he’s generally hilarious. But I do agree with him-- the job of a news reporter, if you have any heart at all, will eventually break it.
Steve and I both work/worked for local news. And we’re interested—do you still watch it? And writers and readers, do you think about the victims  in the mysteries we all read?


VALLEY OF SHADOWS
A Gus Parker and Alex Mills Novel

A cop. A psychic. And a dead socialite. Who killed Viveca Canning and where is the Dali masterpiece that hung on the walls of her estate?

So many people had a motive. Phoenix Detective Alex Mills is on the case with the help of his sometimes-psychic buddy Gus Parker. You won’t find another duo like them. And once you hop on the wild ride, you won’t want to get off. 

Who will survive a doomed flight over the Pacific? Who tried to blow up an art gallery? Who saw Viveca Canning as a threat and shot her twice in the head? Those questions hound Gus and Alex as the case unravels. It’s an art caper wrapped in a murder mystery.

 The Valley of the Sun becomes a Valley of Shadows, where everyone has something to hide and the truth lies beneath Phoenix in a labyrinth of tunnels and dungeons. There’s a lot at stake for Gus and Alex. 

With the case swirling all around them, the future of Gus and his rock n’ roll girlfriend hangs in the balance. 

For Alex, it’s a test of family loyalties as a health scare for his wife brings him to the breaking point. 

Cooper’s style is, at once, scorching and wry. He deftly and seamlessly mixes thrills and chills with snark and wit. There’s good and evil, love and despair, compassion, deceit, and danger. The action swerves around twists and turns and collides with a cast of characters you will not soon forget.

 Steven Cooper is a former investigative reporter. His work has earned him multiple Emmy Awards and nominations, as well as a national Edward R. Murrow award, and numerous honors from the Associated Press. He taught for five years in the English department at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Steven has lived a bit like a nomad, working TV gigs in New England, Arizona and Florida, and following stories around the globe.
 He currently lives in Atlanta. Valley of Shadows is his latest Gus Parker and Alex Mills Novel.




52 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your new book, Steve, I’m looking forward to reading it . . . .

    We do watch the news.
    As for thinking about the victims in the mystery, it’s almost impossible not to think about them, about that loss. And when the author’s done a wonderful job of making that character real for the reader, it’s even harder not to think about the victim in the story.

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    1. Isn't it interesting, too, there's never a class in "writing the victim"--hmm!

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    2. Thanks Joan!
      I hope the victim we write about in fiction feel real enough to help us feel compassion for the victims in the world around us. I hope you enjoy the book!

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  2. Great post! I often think about the victims. Who are the victims? What were their lives like? How did they become victims?

    Often think of the Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, and a passage from the book that reminded me of the Lindbergh baby kidnap case.

    Diana

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    1. SUCH a perfect story of how >everyone is changed by a crime.

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    2. Thanks for the comment. I think empathy is so important especially in a world that's grown so coarse.

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  3. This was a great read this morning!

    I'd say it actually gave me a little to think about. I'm not sure that I always consider the victim when I'm reading any of my crime fiction. By that I mean as anything other than a plot device for the rest of the book to get on with things. A lot of the times in crime fiction, the person being killed seems to deserve it. But even when the victim is "innocent", I can't say that their death moved me to remember that even in the work of fiction that they are a "real" person. I'm sure that is a disturbing new character flaw of mine that has been newly laid bare.

    I read about this book over on BOLO Books earlier this week and I've added the first two books to my want list. And now I'm considering heading up to New England Mobile Book Fair on September 28th for what I'm sure will be a fascinating discussion/signing.

    Steven, congrats on the new book. I'm sure that this will be the start of a beautiful reading relationship for me.

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    1. Jay,
      Thanks for this great response. I'm so glad my words gave you something to think about. When I consider the victims in my books, I consider them real people. I don't always get to develop their arcs fully, but before they hit the page they are real people to me. They have to be.
      Please join us on the 28th. That would be great!

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    2. JAY! It's September 28! I had it wrong! September. xoo

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  4. So glad you brought us that post today Steven--we probably all need to be reminded to imagine the victim and their life, rather than as Jay said, think of them as a plot device. The series sounds terrific!

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  5. This is really thought-provoking, Steven. Thank you for your perspective.

    In my lifetime I've known at least five people who were murdered. I only know the motive for one, a grade school girlfriend who was run down in a parking lot by a jealous rival when we were in our early 20's. The others were all mysteries, and I don't think three of them were ever solved.

    Thank you, and other writers, for humanizing victims. I much to prefer reading about characters who live and breathe on the page.

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    1. Make that six. I forgot about our friend who was murdered by her ex-cop husband a few years ago. So sad.

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    2. Oh, gosh, that's..unsettling. AH. Wow. Talk about thought-provoking...

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    3. Thanks Karen for sharing your thoughts. I do aspire to create characters who live and breathe on the page, whether they're victims or the people who are hunting down the killers. I try to bring humanity to my characters, even the bad ones, because there's always a deeper reason and meaning behind the things that people do.

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  6. This post was not only thought-provoking, Steven, it was powerfully written! It gave me a real sense of urgency to go out and find your books and read them. Thank you for that.

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    1. He's terrific--eager to have you read his books!

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    2. Thank you Susan. I'm so glad to know the article resonated with you. And thank you, dear Hank, for always supporting my work!

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  7. I would say that some of my most-loved mystery writers are those who have done precisely this: made the victims real to the reader--so that you feel their loss, the lives cut short for whatever reason. Tony Hillerman did this so successfully in The Wailing Wind, that the victim still haunts me, even though she was a character on the pages of a book. And the same is true for many of Martha Grimes' books. I can't imagine being a reporter covering homicide--kudos for you, Steven, for sharing this post and for giving us your fiction.

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    1. He would have loved to have heard that, Flora! xoox

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    2. Thank you for your comments. It's hard to know sometimes if the victims will resonate with readers. I'm not always able to develop them as fully as I develop the other characters in my work, but I hope I bring readers into the grieving families' experience just long enough to understand that, while this is fiction, real loss and heartbreak is happening around us every day. I think it's important to recognize the need for empathy and compassion.

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  8. I do think about victims. As you say, Hank, they need to be more than devices to get the plot going. A dear editor friend of mine reminded me once these were people and they mattered to someone, even if in some parts of their lives they were less than perfect.

    Sadly, I don't watch a lot of local news. I just can't stand the overblown headlines. I may catch the highlights, but if I watch past the first ten minutes or so, it will devolve into a state where everything is overly dramatized and I just can't watch.

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  9. Thank you for the thought provoking post this morning. I do watch the news, especially our local news, every day. There are times when, listening to their stories, I shed tears for a victim because the tragedy becomes so real to me. Victims in good mysteries are always fleshed out, but I'm probably not alone in saying that I'm in it for the detective and his pals, the ones I'll meet again and again in the next books. Once again the Jungle Reds have introduced me to an author I'd very much like to read. I'll track down the first Alex Mills book later today. Exactly where is the New England Mobile Book Fair on October 28? Near Boston? Springfield? In Hartford? Rhode Island? 2 hour drive from home?

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    1. SUCH a funny name for a bookstore--it's not mobile at all! And I'm now, thinking about it, not sure of the derivation. But it's a brick and mortar store in Needham, MA.

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    2. I'm so glad you're tracking down the first book. You'll really get to know Alex and Gus as people. If you're in it for the detective and his pals, you probably won't be disappointed with these guys. At least, I hope not! Thanks for your comments!

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  10. I loved this book and this is such a heart-felt blog post. It really is all about compassion.

    I watch the news, because we have to, right? But I can't always say I am a fan. Just seems to me that they love to drum up drama for ratings (biggest weather storm ever known to man, traffic is a nightmare, etc.) while real serious issues are overlooked.

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    1. Kristopher, I used to watch the news all the time. Now I catch it in the morning before work for the weather and sports mostly. And on occasion I'll check it out a bit while eating dinner at home.

      Otherwise I've stopped because it annoys more than informs these days. And for a number of reasons I stopped buying the newspapers altogether. Though that was more a financial thing than anything if I'm being honest. 3 papers a day 7 days a week adds up.

      As for the post being all about compassion, maybe that's why it gave me something to think about because I've never found myself to be an overly compassionate person just for the sake of doing so.

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    2. Don't get me started on the news. As you know I worked in the news business for many years. I am grateful for so much of what I learned and experienced, but I also had a front seat view of all its flaws - and I try to seek out news that does not sensationalize or overhype.

      I'm so glad you enjoyed the book!

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  11. In Cincinnati, it's shootings, fires, and accidents on the interstates. Yes, victims didn't live in a vacuum. Somebody mourns them. Excited to read your new release.

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  12. I do watch the news, both local and national. I've been wondering lately if any of the news I watch is biased in any way. How can we tell unless we watch every news network and then I would probably be so confused! So how I decide to watch is based on how I feel about the reporters. Some have been around for a long time and I trust them. But there is one local channel and its network I cannot watch because the people talk way too fast and with a sort of breathless voice, as if they are running in to tell us and "oh my gosh, can you believe it?"
    I'm not sure if I think about murder victims in books. It must depend on how well we have gotten to know them beforehand. But I do think about real life victims, not that I've ever known any personally. We always want to know the why. And we seldom ever find out for sure. I also think a lot about people who have gone missing and were never seen again.

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    1. Judi, good point on reporters that you know. Obviously, young reporters need to get into the business and get experience, but it's a lot more reassuring to be getting the news from someone with a few decades experience under her belt.

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    2. I think I know the network you're talking about. But I'm not going to guess. I do trust the older, more established reporters. For me, it's about gravitas. Someone with gravitas knows how and when to weave compassion and empathy into the reporting.

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  13. I do watch the local news. Crime victims’ families and friends are always interviewed and talk about the person who is lost to them. I don’t see how they can bear to do that on TV. And so often it is within the first 24 hours of the tragedy.

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    1. I know. I was the one who often interviewed those people in the first 24 hours. I often felt my work exploited their tragedies, which is why I approached the families and friends as if they were my own. I hope my reporting reflected a sense of compassion and honesty.

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  14. Not taking death lightly, "even" in fiction is so important. Anyone who's experienced murder firsthand knows not to reduce it to a plot point. I don't watch local news regularly but I rely on it when there's any kind of local crisis--weather, or crime, or election, or whatever. National news just doesn't cut it.

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    1. We absolutely need local news for local coverage. For context on national events and issues, I quite like Judy Woodruff's show on PBS. Hope you're well, Hallie!

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  15. Shalom Reds and fans. Neither I nor my roommate has a working TV. So, we don’t watch local broadcast news. Every once and a while, there will be some local active event, which will catch my eye and I will first try to find it on Twitter and then try to find an app where I can watch the ongoing live coverage of the event. Several weeks ago, there was an incident where 5 or 6 Philadelphia police officers had been shot trying to make an arrest. It had turned into a standoff event and I used to live not far from the scene. So I followed it on the internet for 30 minutes or so. The perpetrator was finally coaxed to come out from where he was holed up after quite a while and I’m pretty sure it was done with no loss of life.

    Many of us in this region are old enough to remember 1985. A strange cult of radicals was holding up in a Philadelphia row home that had been condemned by the city. A standoff ensued and the mayor authorized the use of a “concussion bomb” on the rooftop to try to force them out of the building. Instead, it ignited a fire, that cost the lives of many including children and burned to the ground a whole block of houses. It’s different when you’ve walked the streets of the neighborhood in the news.

    Also, just a few weeks ago, our sleepy little hamlet had an air force jet flying low, back and forth. It turns out the President’s plane, helicopter or motorcade was in the area and one of our local pilots had ignored no-fly zones or instructions and the fighter plane was insuring that he kept his distance. You know I think of our sitting President as more of a caricature rather than a flesh and blood person but I am glad we live in a country where we do our best to keep the bad guys away from our chief of state.

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    1. https://www.esquire.com/uk/culture/news/a15330/donald-trump-is-donald-duck/

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    2. David, with all the bad things in the world- today, yesterday, thirty-odd years ago - lots of readers want a mystery to escape into. For the author, the trick is balancing that escapism - the thrill of the hunt, the unwrapping of the puzzle - with a real respect for the wrenching effects of murder on the survivors, the community, and, as Steve talks about so eloquently here, the victim. It's one of the toughest tightropes to walk when writing crime fiction.

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    3. Thanks Julia. Covering real life and death taught me important lessons. I need there to be moments in fiction, even brief moments, where the reader sees inside the grief. Even a glimpse goes a long way and reminds us that death is not a plot point.

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  16. Steven, thanks so much for the thoughtful post. I do always think about the victim when I'm writing, and especially about the consequences of an unexpected death on those connected to the victim. This has always been more interesting to me than the puzzle aspect.

    As for the news, we mostly read rather than watch, although we do stream major national things. We watch our local news broadcast for weather and major local events, but we don't watch on a daily basis. Most of the newscasters/reporters for our stations are good, and most have been in the job for a long time. That does give you a sense of trust.

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  17. Thanks for the reply, Deborah. Yes, when it comes to news, it's all about trust. I mentioned gravitas in an earlier reply - and that is something, like trust, that a news person develops over a career. Though some news people are in it for other reasons. Those are news people I do not watch or read.

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  18. Congrats on your latest book, Steven. I'm thrilled that it's set in Phoenix (I'm in Scottsdale but lived int Phx for years). Looking forward to reading it - there just aren't enough mysteries set here.

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    1. Thanks Jenn. I've set the whole series in Phoenix. The desert makes the perfect backdrop for mysteries. You know, the landscape, itself, is mysterious. I hope you enjoy the book.

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  19. "Murder has a name." What a succinctly powerful statement, Steve. The victim is someone's son or daughter or mother or father or loved one. And, all that potential for touching even more people's lives cut short. Especially with younger victims, all that they dreamed to be now gone. There have been a couple of young ladies murdered here in our town that made a lasting impression on me, as they had such bright futures that were ended by young men who claimed to love them. The first was a high school senior who had broken up with her boyfriend, and the boyfriend just couldn't accept it. The girl was lovely and sweet and smart and going places. The ex-boyfriend showed up at her part-time job when she got off, and she made that fateful decision to get in his car to talk to him. He took her to a local cemetery, shot her, set the car on fire, and shot himself. Although I think most of the loss of her, I do think of the boy, too, and how he had a name and people who loved him as well. The second case was a young woman who was in her twenties, working, and had already bought her own home. She had broken up with a man a while back and even had a restraining order against him. He broke into her home, strangled her, and left.

    I do watch the local news, but not religiously so. I used to watch the national news, never wanting to miss it, but I just can't tolerate it these days. I still like reading the local paper daily though.

    Steve, congratulations on your new book. It sounds so interesting. I've gotten bit by the art in fiction bug again, so I'm especially interested in that part of the story. Wishing you much success with Valley of Shadows.

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    1. Thanks, Kathy. I appreciate your comments. Crime does leave a lasting impression. On families, friends, and strangers who are compassionate enough to understand heartbreak even when it's not their own.

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  20. I watch the local news and read the newspaper enough to stay informed. I was annoyed today when the president preempted the first half of my soap opera. If I don't personally have to do something like evacuate, then stay off of my TV until the news hour! I resent TV stations deciding what I should see.

    As far as victims, although many are rotten people, because there are tons of suspects, a good writer will still make us care about them and getting justice. Often it is about clearing other people and making the community safe.

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