I get questions about my books all the time, but there is a frequent one that always stumps me: “Is your book scary?” I’m never sure how to reply. To me, they are not scary, but I go to bed each night with Forensic Files reruns on the TV. The first book involves a serial killer, which is a frightening premise and a non-starter for many readers. Yet others who like dark, disturbing stories find it tepid, like a Lifetime movie. There is no slashing of body parts on the page. There is no long internal narrative from the killer about stalking or dismembering the victims.
It’s funny to me that the same book can be described as “a nice, light read” and “relentlessly sinister,” but it all depends on your point of view. I’m a firm believer in letting readers take what they want from a story. My intent shouldn’t matter. That said, I don’t set out with an intent to scare anyone. But the books aren’t meant to be entirely comfortable either.
As I’ve mentioned, Ellery and Reed are very loosely inspired by real people around the edges of the Ted Bundy case. I was reading a book on Bundy years ago and was struck by how he was a wrecking ball through so many lives. There were the murdered victims, of course, and their loved ones left behind. But also: the cops, prematurely aged by what they’d seen; Bundy’s fiancée and her daughter; Bundy’s own daughter, conceived on death row; Carol DaRonch, Bundy’s most famous living victim who ends up in every Bundy movie, even forty years after the fact; the young women in the sorority house in Florida who weren’t attacked the night he went through the place with a log, bashing heads in; the young women who were attacked and lived, including a dancer who could no longer dance.
I even met a man who happened to be named Ted who ended up on the wrong end of a cop’s gun, just because he shared a name with the infamous serial killer.
So, the books aren’t so much about the serial killer himself, at least not to date. They’re about everyone else who has to live with the crater he left behind. You can lock him up or even execute him but it doesn’t undo all the damage. Justice is imperfect.
I guess if I had to declare any kind of authorial intent, I would say I want the books to feel real. Crime is scary, and that fright can linger even after you survive it, even if the fear is mostly in your head. But surviving means you get to experience the other joyous parts of life, too, like sharing a meal with a friend or rubbing a warm dog belly. I make sure to put those parts into the story as well. Does that make it “light”? Or “grim”?
You get to decide.