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.