Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Why I write mysteries

Writing and Righting Wrongs

When a writer friend recently asked why I write mysteries instead of other forms of fiction, I realized for the first time that the reason has more to do with a young murder victim named Deborah Sue Williamson than the fictional girl detective Nancy Drew. 

Like many, I initially became intrigued by the mystery genre when I discovered the adventures of Nancy Drew and the thrill of being able to solve puzzling cases along with her. But after carefully contemplating my writer friend's question, I know my first real murder mystery had a far greater impact.

I was a young police beat reporter at a newspaper in Lubbock, Texas, when beautiful blonde newlywed Deborah Sue Williamson was brutally stabbed 17 times on August 24, 1975, and left to die inside the carport of her new home. Her husband found her body when he returned from working at the pizza restaurant he managed. Deborah Sue's wedding dress lay on the guestroom bed inside the house, and her purse was missing along with their wedding album. 

She was only 18 years old.

The murder, which remains unsolved today, shocked the West Texas city of 225,000. My editor vowed the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal would carry a front-page story every day until her killer was found. By the time he gave up almost four months later, I knew more about Deborah Sue Williamson than anyone had a right to beyond her immediate family.

For more than 35 years, her murder has haunted me. When a crazy drifter named Henry Lee Lucas confessed in the 1980s to her slaying and over 500 more – crimes he later recanted – I knew it wasn’t him. Her parents did, too, and even sold their home to finance an investigation to prove it so police would continue looking for the real killer.

And it is a grave injustice and an unspeakable tragedy that her murderer still walks free today.

I am a relative newcomer to the mystery genre, having spent decades focused on writing non-fiction articles and books. A few years ago, I decided to try writing a mystery, thinking it might be an interesting challenge and also possibly help exorcise some of the demons from my police beat days. 

As such, I was a far too frequent witness to the devastating aftermath of crime. And with each new crime story I begin and every day that I work on my coninuous-novel-in-progress, I think about Deborah Sue and the other victims. I imagine the terror they felt. I remember how desperate Deborah Sue's parents were to see the crime solved, sharing everything possible with the police and a reporter in the hope it would lead to her killer.

These tragedies never leave me. I am grateful to be able to put pieces of these heart-breaking tales into my own work, where fiction allows us to right wrongs, to make sure the killer is caught, and there is justice for the victim.

I only wish someone could do the same for Deborah Sue Williamson, her family and so many others.

Why do you write mysteries? Are you trying to right any wrongs?


Martha Reed said...

Hi, Pat.

The cops should look at her ex-boyfriends.

Something similar triggered me. Back in the 70's when I lived in Kansas City, a girl from our neighborhood vanished while walking back from the community pool. The janitor of the high school was suspected but investigators couldn't prove anything so they let him go. I remember thinking "I need to remember this" at the time (that was 35 years ago) and it became the basis for my first novel: the idea that someone could walk out of the house and vanish.

The good news is that investigators reopened the case and using DNA evidence (which they didn't have 35 years ago) proved the janitor was involved and he confessed. He'd been luring girls into the high school to get high, knocking them out with chloroform, molesting them, and he accidentally overdosed her.

Moral of the story? The truth will out.

Kristi said...

How strange. My entry into writing mysteries also began when I was a newspaper reporter covering a case in Lubbock. This was the story of a military girl from Minnesota snatched off the base and brutally murdered. I will never forget going for coffee with her father and his grief.

Joyce Tremel said...

Compelling and sad.

I'm not entirely sure why I write mysteries. I've been reading them since I first discovered Nancy Drew, so I guess it came naturally.

I'm fascinated by cold cases. One of our local ones is the case of Cherie Ann Mahan who disappeared after she stepped off a school bus in 1985 and was never seen again. If I remember right, she was the first missing person featured on a milk carton. There was something on the news about the case recently. Someone came forward with some new information, but I haven't heard any more about it.

Annette said...

I think Cherie Mahan haunts a lot of us, Joyce.

In my case, it was series of murders of young women, my own age at the time, back in the late 70s. Some of those cases have been solved in recent years. Others remain open. But it definitely steered my writing toward the crime genre.

Jennie Bentley said...

Not sure why I write mysteries, other than that I've always read a lot of them. Then again, I've read a lot of other things too, and frequently toy with the idea of trying my hand at other genres. I do like the fact that in mysteries we get to see justice done, even if it doesn't always happen in life. I think that's probably what compels people to read them, as well.

I've never heard of Deborah Sue or Cherie Ann, and to be honest, I can't really remember any haunting cases from when I grew up, either. The one most people in Nashville are still thinking about - now that both Janet March and Marcia Trimble are resting in peace - is Tabitha Tuders. The 13-year-old girl vanished on her way to school one morning in April 2003, and no one's seen her since. Had the whole neighborhood in an uproar for months.

GeorgiaWoodward said...

Hi Pat,
Great post. I can see how a case like that could follow you for life. For me it did start with Nancy Drew and my love for reading. More recently the Leslie Buck case in Mystic, CT has garnered my interest. The husband was the prime suspect but was recently let go. I think the "why" people do the things they do is what intrigues me the most.

Patg said...

I just love a mystery, and find crossover genres very interesting. The traditional mystery that the Brits like involving a puzzle that the reader spends time trying to solve along with the protag is my favorite.
Needless to say, I lived through the whole Green River Killer story here in OR, and now we are all sad over the Kyrin Harmon disappearance.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit becoming a mystery writer for me revolved around solving a puzzle. I'm a huge fan of Brit mysteries and if you add in a dose of the psychology behind the murder, I'm hooked. I believe given the right circumstances, anyone could commit murder. . .

C.L. Phillips said...


Nothing like that meaningful drives me to write...nope, I'm all about escaping....pure unadulterated fun. Sometimes I wish I weren't so ....shallow...

"Roscoe, put some more water in that pool, will ya'"

Leslie Budewitz said...

Pat, what a poignant story, esp the details about her dress and the album. Thanks for sharing it. As the other comments demonstrate, similar stories keep police, family, friends, and reporters up all night all over the country, looking for answers and justice -- which may not be the same thing.

Loni Emmert said...

Fascinating. The mysteries that occur in real life always beat out any that we can dream up. Poor victims that never see justice. I always wonder what they would have thought if they knew that they would go down in history as an unsolved murder.

Anonymous said...

I turned to mystery writing as a last resort. I tried my hand at other genres and types of writing but couldn't sell anything. I had a great character but couldn't find the right "vehicle" for him. One day I saw a notice in a newspaper of a Sisters in Crime authors panel. I attended the panel and my first SinC meeting shortly afterwards. Inspired, I placed my character in a mystery and the book practically wrote itself (along with plenty of revision).
Sally Carpenter

Kellie M. Rix said...

I have been reading mysteries for many years. Primarily cozy mysteries. I am drawn to reading and writing mysteries - I have only just started writing my first cozy - because there is a problem that can be solved, while often times in the real world, as you stated, mysteries are not solved. For me, it is about finding answers and justice, too. Thank you for sharing!

PatRemick said...

Thanks all for the comments. So interesting to know why others write! Also interesting to know that the unsolved cases are remembered in unexpected ways.

Anonymous said...

Pat there were 3 girls killed that year. I can't remember the other girls names. Deborah was the first. One was a young nurse.