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."


  1. While I can’t say I’ve personally had any of those “code of the hills” experiences, Nancy’s book certainly sounds like an intriguing story, so it’s definitely getting added to my to-be-read pile . . . .

  2. Welcome, Nancy!

    I grew up in a Catholic community and went to Catholic school — _definitely_ a code of silence there....

  3. And then there's the code of silence WITHIN a family. Outwardly everything looks perfect. In my family there were plenty of secrets we kept from the world. As I always say, if you're a writer, dysfunctional parents are teh gift that keeps giving.

  4. Good morning! Is everyone's family a little nutty? I don't mean the criminal darkness I describe in my book. But within the family structure, there is always drama.

  5. Hi Nancy, welcome to JRW! I know a bit about the Ozarks, having spent a good bit of time on the Arkansas side over the years. Stunningly beautiful country, but a lot of poverty and very much the "closed community."

    I love the sound of your flawed protagonist. That together with your real-life experience must make for a fascinating book!

  6. This is such a fun and friendly group! Joan & Susan & Hallie--what Deborah says about the closed community is true. Outsiders are regarded with suspicion. We think Chicago is the East Coast. But I love city slickers! You all head on down here anytime--I'll give you an Ozarks welcome!

  7. So looking forward to reading about Elsie.

  8. Pre-ordered the book. I am a sexual abuse survivor (my father, the years when I was 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17). I am grateful to be the person I am -- grateful to support groups, writing, self-help books, therapy, family, and friends. Thank you, Nancy Allen and all prosecutors.

    I have watched "Law and Order: SVU" because the perps get caught, unlike most real-life situations.

  9. Hallie, your take on dysfunctional family and/or parents is indeed turning a negative into a positive. I hope you'll forgive me if I tell you it made me laugh, but then I have some experience in the matter, too.

    Of course, there are definitely some dysfunctional aspects to families and communities that are anything but humorous and made worse by the "code of silence." I'm looking forward to reading your book, Nancy, which sounds like a thought provoking look at the damage that code can do.

  10. You're right, Kathy Reel - there's dysfunctional parents who hurt themselves (mine) and then there are those that hurt their kids (with my parents it was more narcissism and neglect.) So grateful I never experienced with Denise Ann did. Kids are so vulnerable.8264435 28

  11. Denise, it takes tremendous courage to speak out as a survivor; thank you. I'm on the Board of the Victim Center which provides free counseling to victims of violent and sexual crime, and I am in awe of the bravery of people who must work through the trauma.

    And Kathy, I'm so delighted that you are looking forward to my book. I'm dying to share it with you!

  12. Elsie is a tribute to all those hard working people out in the trenches working so hard to rescue abused kids! You cannot help yourself from falling in love with her! A great read- cannot wait for book 2.

  13. How did I not know of this book and me living right here in Missouri? I will have to go out and get it right away.

    As most Reds and backbloggers know, I'm also an incest survivor. It's so tough to break that chain through the generations. I made sure it never touched my kids, but one of my many younger brothers followed in my father's footsteps and ended up in prison (rightfully) for it.

    I salute your hard work, Nancy. You are fighting for the kids who think they have no one to turn to.

  14. Linda, thank you so much. And I salute you for striving forward; you are so courageous.

    And Sue and Patti--I appreciate your support more than I can say!

  15. Hey, Nancy! Your book is terrific..congratulations!

    My defense-attorney husband was a lawyer for one of the defendants in the Boston Code of Silence II favorite quote from the testimony of one witness was when he accused another guy of snitching.

    "He has rat blood in his veins!" the guy yelled.

  16. My Dad's family has always had secrets. It's frustrating when you want to know who people were and why. I once had a Great-aunt whisper that we don't talk about Uncle George. He owned a tavern that was (gasp) open on SUNDAYS. :) Yes. That was one of the big secrets. My Mom's side had their secrets too but they were such big storytellers there weren't many.

  17. Well hello, Hank! I love the rat blood quote-- gave me a big chuckle.

    Ann, there's nothing more fascinating than family stories. My family was full of storytellers--of course, we weren't supposed to repeat them outside the circle...

  18. There were (and probably still are) plenty of secrets on my Dad's side of the family. Some of my cousins and I have been trying to find the truth about family members who are long, long gone, some of whom died before we were born. Family members down to our own generation have been affected by things that happened in the early 1900s. The more I find out about some of the relatives, the more I think my family history sounds weirder than fiction, but I guess that's true of any family!

    My mom's family, on the other hand, was solidly normal, unless there's something we don't know about them!

  19. The setting fascinates me, too. And the work is of course very important. Burn out material...good to find respite and release in fiction.

  20. Deb, my family is made up of generations of hillbillies--more colorful (to put it mildly) characters than you can shake a stick at!

    And Jenny, I'm tickled to hear that you're interested in the setting. Can you hear some banjos picking in the distance? (And can you taste the moonshine?)

  21. Hi Nancy!
    So excited to hear about your book and to see it is a WitnessImpulse book. My debut mystery comes out in June and I could not be happier with the quality of the team I'm working with -- from my editor, to my publicist, even the sharp copyeditor who made me feel like I needed to go back to English 101!
    Anyway, it sounds like you deal with some deep issues in your book and I can't wait to check it out.

  22. Kristi, glad to meet you! And yes indeedy--Witness rocks!! Long live Trish Daly! (My editor) I am the president of her fan club, baby.

  23. Kudos and bravos to this author and all the wonderful comments you folks shared with all of us who are Jungle Red Devotees!!! My family were from Tennessee and New Hampshire, and I've always thought there were tales much like these that were never spoken of out loud... But graves are often silent mystery books. Thelma in many-layered Manhattan

  24. Thelma... I love that: "Graves are often silent mystery books." It's poetic and kind of profound. Thanks!

  25. Pretty soon my TBR stack will be taller than I am. Kudos to Denise and Linda--the only way out of the darkness is to shine a light onto the dirty secrets....

    My family came out of the hills of eastern Kentucky--a code of silence there, too, and mistrust of outsiders--but also a code of honor. My grandad was the county sheriff and highly respected. Grandad to the boy who wanted to take my younger sister for a spin on his motorcycle: "Yes, you can take her for a ride. But there isn't any place you can go or anything you can do that I won't know about." Young man: "Yessir, Mr. Thompson."

  26. Love to Denise Ann and Linda, and thanks to Nancy for opening up the silence!

  27. I lived with my Boston Irish grandparents for awhile, and yes there appears to be a code, but most of what I experienced there was a knowing that you would not dare tell or ask, because it is dangerous to know.

  28. Reine, I love the way you describe the family dynamic.

    And Carole--thanks for the words of support!

    And PChurch--must confess, I hope my book is on your TBR stack!