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A Field of Darkness

Q & A

A Field of Darkness

Q: How did you get started writing A Field of Darkness?

A: I'd been laid off from a dotcom job in early 2001, and had spent months slogging through Craigslist job postings trying to find a new gig. One morning I ran across an announcement for a new crime fiction writing group here in Berkeley. I hadn't done fiction seriously in years, and had never tried my hand at the genre, but decided to go check it out when I realized how committed a mystery reader I'd become.

Our initial meeting was a week before 9/11. I volunteered to submit first, figuring I had two weeks to come up with a story.

Q: So how did you decide on this story?

A: Driving home from that meeting, I started thinking about an unsolved double murder my husband's father told me about years ago, over lunch one day at their family farm... Decades earlier, the bodies of two girls were found in a neighbor's field. They'd last been seen alive with a pair of soldiers, walking along the New York State Fair's midway.

My father-in-law told me he'd been leasing that same field for several years, and had churned up a set of dog tags there one spring. Since I was working for a local paper at the time, he thought I might be interested in writing about it. I did fluffy feature things, mostly—how to make sushi, book reviews, Valentine's Day profiles of couples who'd found love through the personal ads. I had no idea how to tackle a crime story. I didn't have the confidence to pursue it.

Q: He never went to the police?

A: I've asked him to. He says he's not sure where the tags are, anymore.

Q: Did you recognize the soldier's name, as your character does?

A: I never saw the tags. I was too scared to ask—thought I'd screw it up if I tried to investigate. I've been haunted by that decision ever since.

Q: Are the murders in your novel based on those killings?

A: Only very loosely—I don't know what year the real murders happened, or anything about the victims. Not their names, not where they were from.

Shortly after the novel opens, in 1988, my character Madeline Dare is told about two young women who'd been murdered eighteen years before she arrived in Syracuse. They were last seen at the fair with soldiers. Their bodies were discovered in a farm field, but never identified. When her father-in-law asks if she'd like to see the dog tags he found at the scene, she says yes.

Q: And when Madeline looks at them, she recognizes the name of her favorite cousin?

A: Yes. A guy who's charming, from a branch of her family that held onto its Robber Baron money. She's horrified to see his name, because he's one of the few relatives who have been unfailingly kind to her. Madeline gets involved because she's determined to prove him innocent.

Q: Why make your character's cousin the prime suspect?

A: Almost all the family history in the book is true. I'm descended from a slew of Dead White Bad Guys. My people had a serious genius for atrocity, from the Mayflower on down. In the book I say, "start counting at Plymouth Rock, and you'll run out of fingers by Paul Revere." It's kind of terrifying. Another killer in the mix wouldn't surprise me at all.

There are cool people, too, people I'm proud to be related to. Bucky Fuller was a distant cousin, and some great Quakers who were part of the Underground Railroad, but it's the creepy ones I'm obsessed with. Seems like every generation has perpetrated new horrors—heartbreaking, appalling, and ultimately pointless cruelty.

Q: Like what?

A: The first one I always think of is Captain John Underhill, who directed the Pequot tribe massacre in Connecticut. Somewhere between 400 and 700 people stabbed or burned to death in under an hour—they didn't bother to count—women and kids included. Underhill was paid a bonus by the Crown for that, and used it to buy himself a chunk of Long Island. He named it "Killingworth." I think it's Locust Valley, now.

More recently... well, there was the woman who used to laugh and say, "Hitler had the right idea" over cocktails. The CIA guy who supposedly used Air America to smuggle opium out of Laos during the Vietnam war, so it could be processed into Heroin in Hong Kong and sold cheap to GIs back in Saigon. The serial rapist. The people who thought it was amusing to wear home-made "I LIKE EICH" buttons to the Maryland Hunt Cup, during Eichmann's trial in Jerusalem. Then there's the slave section in the family cemetery on Long Island—all these eerily short little sunken graves with broken stones for markers at the heads and feet.

I feel guilty about all of it.

Q: For stuff you didn't do?

A: For the things that stuff has made possible in my life. Madeline jokes that her "money is so old, there's none left," which is what I've been telling people for years, but I've still been the recipient of tremendous bounty from that old-WASP goodie bag. Scholarships and being a debutante at the Plaza and even some highly impractical furniture, not to mention many pairs of really great second-hand loafers, over the years.

Plus, pretty much whenever life requires a little dominant paradigm razzle-dazzle, I can hum a few bars and fake it, which is a valuable skill. Despite having been raised by renegade pinko wolves outside Big Sur, I got shipped east every summer for double-secret-etiquette-boot-camp indoctrination... pre-dawn drills in Fork Selection and Receiving Line Comportment. Advanced Finger Bowl Appreciation. Graduate seminars like "Spot the Arriviste: by his suspiciously undamaged deck shoes shall ye know him."

You can deploy me into the frostiest cocktail party on the planet, blindfolded and gagged with duct tape, and I'll manage to escape detection for hours.

I feel guilty about that, too.

Q: What's with you and the guilt parade?

A: I'm all about guilt. I keep telling myself I'll be more subversive when I grow up, because this stuff is so not fair to anyone who doesn't know the secret handshake.... Because I'm still a snob, despite my best efforts to repent.... Because I'm a sucker for vichysoisse and crustless cucumber finger sandwiches and old-school Gucci loafers and yummy toile curtains and being in the Social Register, and I wonder about my own capacity for evil... how shallow and cruel I might have been, if I'd had a trust fund of my own.

That's pretty much what the book's about: my attraction-repulsion thing with family history. In that sense the book is autobiography—except, let us hope, for the serial killer part.