Forensic Files

For starters, this is not a review of HLNs never-ending true crime series that has supplied a continuing stream of murderous true crime stories that date from that fuzzy, long ago time before HiDef TV, AFIS, and even DNA, for that matter. I’ve watched it over the years and learned a lot by doing so, but this blog post is NOT about that!

Years ago I received a panicked email from someone wondering where he could lay hands on a Cliff Notes version of one of my books. Obviously my correspondent was a high school kid staring down the barrel of a deadline to deliver a written book report. I wrote back and explained that I write books with no socially redeeming value whatsoever. That I’m a storyteller who … well …tells stories that are meant to entertain and be read. That being the case, it seems unlikely that anyone would ever do a Cliff Notes style analysis of any of my books.

It turns out I was wrong about that, because someone IS doing just such an analysis and, like the Little Red Hen of old, since no one else is willing to do the job, I’m doing it myself—with the Walker Family books. I mentioned weeks ago, that with the prospect that my next book would most likely be a Walker book—a combo Walker/Joanna Brady, as it turns out—I needed to go back through those books—stories written years ago and I hadn’t examined since writing them.

So that’s what I’ve been doing, but rather than simply reading them, it’s more like doing a research paper or perhaps a literary forensics examination of the material. As I go along, I’m making detailed notes about all the characters involved—how old they were when each books was written so I can figure out how old they are now and keep the time lines in order. Because I’ve been away from the reservation for a very long time, I’m doing that examination with my well-thumbed and coffee-stained copy of Dean and Lucille Saxton’s Tohono O’odham/Pima Dictionary on the side-table at my elbow—the same table holding my coffee cup although no new stains have recently been added to the previous collection.

Along the way, I’ve noticed how much things have changed during the intervening years. In Hour of the Hunter, for example, I spelled O’odham the old-fashioned way—O’otham. I’ve been away from the reservation for a long time. I can see how I may have inadvertently misused some of the words, but as a Big Toe Indian, I have used them to the best of my ability. (By the way, I’m what’s known as a Big Toe Indian, someone with so little Indian Blood only my big toe qualifies!) I believe that throughout the series I have been respectful of the Tohono O’odham people—of their belief systems, their ways of doing things, and their good-natured gentle humor.

Yesterday I finished reading book number three—Day of the Dead. Of all my books, it has always been my least favorite, probably because the villains involved are members of what the Desert People would call PaDaj O’odham—the Bad People. They are truly evil, and I can tell you I was relieved when I got to the end of the book and they were both dead in a hail of bullets. Living out their fictional lives in fictional jail cells would have been far too good for the kinds of brutality they had inflicted on others, but rereading the story reminded me of another email I received after DOTH was published. It came from a young woman in Canada who wanted to know If what I had written was based on her personal story. Since I had never heard about her or her story, that was clearly not the case, but obviously the story I made up had come far too close to the reality of her personal experience.

Taken together the books cover decades of homicide investigations and demonstrate the changes in forensic science over that period of time. In 1970 fingerprints and blood typing from crime scenes was pretty much it, and the fingerprints available for comparison were the ones on file in the local cop shop which meant that crimes committed by the same individual in different jurisdictions could easily go unsolved and unpunished. The various national databases—NAMUS—the national missing persons database, AFIS—the Automated Fingerprint Identification System, and CODIS—the Combined DNA Identification System simply didn’t exist. Will the next book have something to do with Forensic Genealogy? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

Along the way I’ve noticed the ongoing generational impact crime has visited on the lives of my various characters. Diana Ladd’s single-minded devotion to her career and the detachment that keeps her from fully connecting with her children has to do with the abuse visited on her as a child as well as on the earth-shattering betrayals that ended her first marriage. Ditto for Brandon Walker who has spent his life dealing with the loss of not one but two sons. Families where loved ones are either victims or perpetrators of homicides don’t get over it—ever. I don’t have any personal experience in that regard, but obviously the creative part of me understands that reality—because it’s right there in black and white.

But what has struck me most about the way these books are written is the WAY they are written. Readers meet the various characters a snippet at a time, one small bit after another, and all the while those bits are coming together the overall plot of the story is also unfolding. And those Tohono O’odham legends blend in with the plot. One of those, the story of how Ban, Coyote, tricked the people into staying away from the waterhole by sitting on a rock and claiming the coyotes would come after them if they drank the water is a case in point because shortly after it appears in the book, we’re all attending Fat Crack’s funeral feast in the village of Ban Thak—Coyote Sitting.

I’ve often said that creating the Walker books was more a process of French braiding stories than writing them, and it’s really true. But if anyone ever asks you how I do that and did that, you can tell them from me that I have NO IDEA. I sure as hell didn’t OUTLINE them. I told the stories the way they showed up in my head. Take that, Cliff Notes, and now I believe I’ll go back to reading Queen of the Night.

20 thoughts on “Forensic Files

  1. When I took English in college there was a huge amount of effort involved in trying to determine what the author really meant. Was Billy Budd a prototype for Christ is one particular thing I remember from the course. I always sort of wondered to myself if the author was just trying to tell a story and the English professors were trying to read too much into it. Your post this week reminded me of that now long ago class.

    • John Steinbeck once said that he laughed when people analyzed his work and found imagery. He said he was just a old newspaper writer reporting a story.

  2. I am so happy to hear there will be another Walker Family book in the future. I learned so much about the Tohono O’odham people and life on the reservation from this series. Much more than I ever did years ago in American history class. Pairing the Walkers with Joanna Brady will definitely be interesting.
    Thanks again for keeping me entertained with all of your stories in book form and through your blog.

  3. In 1939 the O’otham people were known as the Papagos. My cousin was the new Postmaster in Ajo. He was sent to subtly bring the office up to code after the postal inspectors discovered some irregularities.
    He was warmly welcomed. My family and I went for a visit during Easter vacation. I was seven years old. My cousin lived away from town. The wildflowers were in bloom. We bought some beautiful hand woven baskets. The people were nice. All was well.
    All was well until the chiefs mother was told she could not have her snack stand in the lobby … Postal Rules and Regulations. All hell broke loose. It was tradition. The people would come in to pick up their mail and have a snack and chat for a bit.
    The next morning my cousin found that during the night a fire had been burned across the path to his to his house. Not good. When he got the post office a fire had been burned in his parking space. He was told that their Papago rules were more important than postal rules. And they would continue to follow tribal rule.
    My cousin went to his phone and asked for an immediate transfer. When in Rome …. Let the Papigos continue their tradition.

  4. I loved reading the Walker series, not only for the stories, but for the historical background. It’s been so long ago that I read them, I guess that, I too, will need to revisit the books. However, that’s “homework” that will truly be enjoyable!

  5. What a revelation! Good for you for writing how you think and how the stories come to you. One of the short stories in my book was what I dreamed about.
    Anticipating a joint Walker/Brady book! Perfect combo…maybe the next one with Beau as well?

  6. The next time someone asks for a Cliffs Notes, refer them to the nearest public library. There they may browser Reader’s Guide, Book review Digest, etc. Wen all ee fails, the can ask a librarian.

  7. When you mentioned that you had reread The Hour of The Hunter I reread it too and re-reading it lead me to start rereading the whole series before I read this blog today.
    I would mention to you that Diane Gabaldon who writes the Outlander series of immensely long books involving Time travel has now written tow long books telling back information in shortened form ( though they are both long books) because people might show up again and the reader may not remember all the details.

    I never thought of them as Cliff notes but you have long series too and sometimes
    it would be nice to be able to check on mentioned characters. So I wish you success with this endeavor.

    • Whats HLN stand for?

      HLN (formerly Headline News, CNN Headline News and CNN2) is an American cable news channel owned by Warner Bros. Discovery.

  8. I am glad you are putting the effort into establishing a realistic time line. Thanks! I ditched all my Anne McCaffrey books at some point, but her time-line errors used to drive me bonkers.

    There are always lessons to take away from Jance books. The one I just finished re-reading had things to say about the nature of good and evil, the value and reward of kindness, and how fear can paralyze someone into inaction or the wrong action. But metaphor, not so much. I got a good grounding in the English language in school, but never mastered the “analysis” of literature. Since reading is one of my chief pleasures, I’m glad I didn’t go down that wormhole.

  9. You never cease to amaze me! Every word from your pen – Oops- computer are spell binding. Hard to put down. Hard to stop turning pages. Hope you never stop.

  10. Now I know what I am: A Big Toe Native American! My Cherokee ancestor lived in the 1700’s so I figured I’m 1/64th Cherokee. Maybe I’m a little toe??? Anyway, since I was very young I had been fascinated with Native legends and spirituality, not knowing until I was in my 60’s that I actually had Native blood. I’m so proud of the fact that that drop of Cherokee lives in me and made me aware of their plights and ways of living nearly all my life. My work with genealogy charts has had an added blessing.

    • Know how you feel. Knew from as early as I can remember that great great grandmother was full blood Cherokee. I was always thrilled at that and just recently found that there is Choctaw in my tree also – not sure where but still exciting. What fun. And I am 74.

  11. I love your books, my favorite character is Beau, but I have read all of the books. I recently read a different author, can’t wait to get back to your books. I have “Nothing to Lose” downloaded on my iPad although I’m what you call a DTR (Dead tree Reader)..

      • Dead Tree Readers prefer paper-based books rather than e-books or recorded books. I am a DTR. When the power is out I still have books.

        • Ahhhh! I get it. I am also a DTR. I must have (or have had) thousands of books. Think I would go crazy if books a went away. But I love trees too! Ah – what are we to do????

  12. I can’t remember the English author’s name, but once he was asked the meaning behind something he wrote. He said he had no idea. The mortgage was due and he had to produce something for his weekly submission. There were no hidden meanings or anything.

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