(Publisher’s Weekly, Feb. 2, Mardi Link)
“Why can’t you just leave it alone?”
I was neck-deep in research for my first true crime book and had just arrived in the idyllic northern Michigan town where the deadly deed had occurred, some 40 years earlier. A family of six from Detroit had been murdered inside their summer cottage in 1968. I was seven years old then and heard news of the murders crackle out of the car radio. The killer, the radio said, was unknown and still at large. We were on vacation that day, en route to our cottage up north (on the other side of the state from where the murders took place). Even though I didn’t know the family who’d been killed, the dark image of a man with murder in his heart and a gun in his hand creeping through the forest was a powerful one. The case stayed with me well into adulthood.
Schooled as a journalist, with experience as a police reporter, the topic would have been very much in my purview, even without that girlish memory. It was the largest unsolved mass murder in my state’s history, the long investigation was the stuff of legend, and no one had written a nonfiction book about the case. Still, I couldn’t help thinking of the project as a kind of exorcism.
After I’d completed the paper research—compiling old newspaper clips, searching the Web and filing FOIA requests with abandon—I drove north to conduct some in-person interviews. Many of the people whose names were listed in the police report were not only still alive but still lived at the same address. Within minutes of setting foot on Good Hart’s sandy soil, I was met with suspicion. The same question that had stopped me short was repeated a second time by a shopkeeper—“Why can’t you just leave it alone?”—when I pulled open the screen door to the only business in town: a general store straight out of Currier and Ives. Or, if I squinted, The Shining.
Who did I think I was, prodding into that long-ago wickedness everyone else was trying to forget? I had expected questions from the locals, just not this one. Four decades had passed, the crime was now officially a cold case, and I had naïvely thought people would want to know the specifics I’d uncovered about the evidence and not my motivations for writing about the case. Had I seen the crime scene photos? (Yes.) Did I walk the remote dune where the cottage once stood? (Yes.) And the coup de grace, who would I name as the killer? (The father’s right-hand man.)
In the following days, the shopkeeper’s question would uncover a deeper one of my own: why do we write, and read, true crime books? The genre churns out new releases every month. There are scholarly true crime books, bestsellers, mass-market paperbacks and even some award winners; the category has a loyal following. People who read true crime books read a lot of them. I have anecdotal evidence of this literary phenomenon; I’m one of those readers myself.
Later that same summer I attended the Bear River Writer’s Conference on the shores of Michigan’s pristine Walloon Lake, which happens to be the next town over from the crime scene. While there I had a chance meeting with short story writer Amy Hempel. She asked me what I was working on. “Ooooh,” she said, with a little shiver when I told her, “I love true crime.” “Really?” I asked, surprised. “Why?” “Because it makes me feel safer,” she answered, without hesitation.
The missing details of real life that we unconsciously fill in with our imaginations—that dark man in the forest—are always more frightening than the facts. That, then, was why I couldn’t just leave it alone. I needed to give that dark man a name and a motive. I needed to know what kind of gun he had been carrying and where he went after he pulled the trigger. I just needed the facts. And there’s nothing like a book to give a writer, and her readers, that.
About the author:
Mardi Link is the author of When Evil Came to Good Hart: An Up North Michigan Cold Case (Univ. of Michigan Press) and Isadore’s Secret: Sin, Murder & Confession at the Turn of the Century, which Michigan will publish in July.