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Murder in the Mountains: A Few Disorganized Thoughts

At a writers conference last year, thriller author Sarah K. Stephens and I had a great conversation about violent historical patterns. I mentioned that I'd heard someone suggest that the number of US serial killers in the 80s might have something to do with their being raised in post-WWII households by traumatized parents, but Sarah, a developmental psychologist, warned that "root causes" didn't tell the whole story. In her field, for example, violence is being studied as contagious, moving through communities with the same pathology as infectious diseases. If you're curious, this Newsweek article from last February, "How Gun Violence Literally Infects Communities," does a solid job of summarizing a Harvard study of Chicago violence.

This makes a lot of sense to me, though like a many fiction writers, I am often seduced by the "root cause" illusion of how a killer is created. Which brings me to my latest distraction—I am supposed to be writing a syllabus for a class that 1) I've never taught before, and 2) starts in 9 days—but I'm being derailed by my fascination with a recent, unusual crime that occurred recently in West Virginia, fairly close to our peaceful cabin community. And of course, I'm trying to write a story about it.

Here are the details, some of which come from the news and other public sources, but I'm sure there are some twisted facts and rumors in here: shortly before Thanksgiving a woman, 53 yrs old, calls up the Social Security office to tell them to stop sending checks to her husband, 73, and her son, 33, because they are dead. Then she opens a PO Box and sends herself a document that is said to be a print out of a 42-page list of domestic grievances that she's already emailed to a number of acquaintances. A few days later, she is found in her driveway, dead in her car by self-inflicted gunshot. Oh, and her house is burning down, too. Firefighters eventually find the tarp-wrapped bodies of her husband and son in the basement of the house, but the theory is that they were originally on the first floor, having fallen through the burned boards.

It's a terribly sad story, but my writer's mind is in a fever to imagine what could have triggered this outcome. See, trigger is just another word for root cause in this case, the almost romantic sense that there is a single straw that breaks the camel's back instead of (googling "how many straws are in a bale of hay" has not been helpful here) a whole bunch.

So, it is in this mood that I read the local paper from last week and learned that Grand Jury handed down 28 indictments for the January term. Most of these were drug offenses, but four were battery charges. Three of these were by women—the methods included stabbing, beating with a two by four, and attempted arson. One woman was accused of battering her "late husband," whatever that means. The timing of the indictments created the strange impression that the woman who killed her husband and son had set off other women in a chain reaction, when in fact some of the battery incidents happened as long ago as April. And that's where I come in, because the impression of a kind of fast-moving, violent infection is a better story. In fact, I'm very tempted to make these batterers the recipients of the 42-page email, but that's very on-the-nosey.

The fiction will derive from a re-organized sequence of events, closer connections between them, and probably a plot about domestic abuse, because that's what I assumed upon hearing of the murder-suicide. There will be clear, singular through-line, unlike what you get in life, but that's all part of the job. The story will also depend on its most absorbing elements: women going berserk in a small, mountain town, as if a disease of violence was spreading.

Side note 1: In a sense, women and small towns occupy the same deluded margin when we're talking about drama—despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the prejudice that women and small towns are "safe," is enormously powerful; we're always shocked by women killers and we're always shocked by small town killings. I know I'm guilty of those biases, and I write mysteries. I'm supposed think the worst of everyone.

Side note 2: A bit doesn't fit into the above, but will likely snake its way into the story somehow. 2017 isn't the first time our pastoral cabin community has had its peace shattered. In 2014 a nearby neighbor stabbed her boyfriend with a paring knife, multiple times. He made it out to a main road and flagged down a police cruiser and was taken to the hospital. The woman was arrested, and that looked like the end of the story until it came out that the woman's daughter had made an audio recording of the fight that showed the man was the aggressor, and the woman was defending herself and her daughter. He was tried and found guilty of domestic battery, and because he was a parolee, he was extradited back to Virginia to serve the remainder of his sentence. Just a year before he had been paroled after serving 20 years of a 35 year sentence for a 1993 murder-for-hire conspiracy.

I may blog more about this case in the future, because the original murder took place fairly close to where I live in Northern Virginia, and it connects very suspiciously to the discovery of a body in a well on Extradited Boyfriend's property in WV—very close to our cabin community, proving for the millionth time that it is a disturbingly small world.

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