Interview: June 4, 2004
June 4, 2004
Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter Edna Buchanan, author of COLD CASE SQUAD, talks to Bookreporter.com's Suspense/Thriller Author Spotlight Team (Carol Fitzgerald, Joe Hartlaub and Wiley Saichek) about her inspiration for the "Cold Case Squad" series, as well as her strong personal attachment to her characters. She also discusses in great detail the workload of real-life cold case squads, her writing routine, and the possibility of adapting her fiction for television or film.
BRC: What inspired you to write this new series?
EB: This is the novel I have wanted to write for twenty years. These crimes, these characters, have clamored for their book for more than two decades. The restless victims of old unsolved murders haunt me. I never forget them. So I was excited when Miami's cold case squads emerged in the early 1980s. Their work sparked both my imagination and enthusiasm. A lengthy feature I wrote on the cold case squad was published on January 30, 1984, in the Miami Herald. (I covered the police beat for the Herald at the time. That was two years before I won the Pulitzer Prize.) The concept of how all the new cutting edge forensic technology on the horizon could breathe new life into old cases simply blew me away. I was convinced that a fictional cold case squad with access to the latest high tech, Star Trek-style forensics would make both an exciting book and a wonderful TV series. I wrote Cold Case Squad proposals for both books and television for years. In the early nineties both Dick Wolf of Law and Order fame and Steve Cannell, who wrote the Rockford Files and many other series, became interested. Cannell optioned it and wrote a script, but the network did not follow through and no TV pilot was made. Now, ten years later, there is a series. I guess I was before my time.
BRC: Do you see the "Cold Case Squad" series as an open-ended series or do you have an estimated number of books in mind to devote to these characters?
EB: I'm afraid I'm not organized enough to plan that far ahead. I have so many ideas, so many characters whispering in my ear, wanting me to tell their stories, write their books. I'm eager to do a number of stand-alone novels, but I also love a series, seeing the characters grow as their lives, careers and relationships change and unfold from book to book. I leave the decision to my editor. I write four or five book proposals and ask him to choose. I was delighted when Simon & Schuster wanted COLD CASE SQUAD and its sequel, now in progress.
BRC: In an interview with Publishers Weekly, you stated that you wrote about Miami's Cold Case Squad in 1984, and that their work "just blew [you] away." Can you share some background on what cold case squads do to readers who may be unfamiliar with the term/department?
EB: The handpicked Cold Case Squad detectives are self-starters. They have to be. They never hear the screams, see the blood, or feel the outrage good cops experience at fresh murder scenes. Instead, they dissect dusty files and stacks of typewritten reports as cold and unemotional as a killer's heart. But their work is as dramatic as time travel. They go back in time to apply sophisticated modern technology --- lasers, computers, DNA, and blood spatter analysis --- to murders committed long before such forensic techniques were even dreamed of. Some investigations take them from Miami today, an international metropolis, back to the sleepy resort town it once was, a community with different laws and public attitudes. Crime scenes and witnesses' addresses are gone, long since replaced by strip malls, expressways and high-rise development. The detectives, who use digital cameras to produce three-dimensional crime scene photos and create virtual reality crime scenes for juries, often begin with only grainy black and white crime scene photos and the ghost of an unknown killer who has vanished like footprints on sea washed sand.
Under pressure to produce, each scrutinizes ten old, unsolved case files, in search of anything left undone, anything that might make a case solvable. They swap files, re-read, brainstorm, argue and ultimately agree on the investigations to pursue. They also look at cases at the behest of a victim's relative or an attorney and are forwarded clues or bits of information on unsolved murders from other detectives, private investigators or prosecutors. The black and the Cuban detectives, street cops with their own unique talents and good instincts, often clash, a reflection of Miami's ethnic polarization. Each thinks the other gets all the breaks, each tries to be a hot shot by outdoing the other. All, at times, resent working for their lieutenant, Lt. Kathleen Constance Riley.
What drives them all is that, unlike other crimes, first-degree murder has no statute of limitations. No matter how old the case, a killer can still be brought to justice. Pressures from within and outside the system challenge each team member in a sultry, sub-tropical city that sizzles with international intrigue, danger and political powder kegs. The players in many old mysteries have aged twenty years or more. Frightened children have grown to adulthood still harboring buried fears. A femme fatale whose youth and beauty once triggered fatal passions is now middle-aged and frowzy. Killers aged by years and dark secrets are more committed than ever to maintaining their freedom --- and even more dangerous.
BRC: Did you anticipate writing about Burch, Riley and company again immediately after their appearance in THE ICE MAIDEN?
EB: I was hoping. Burch and his detectives are relatively new, but I had become very fond of them. K.C. Riley first appeared in MIAMI, IT'S MURDER in 1994. A rape squad lieutenant then, she has wandered in and out of my work ever since, always demanding a more major role.
BRC: Do you anticipate returning in future novels to other characters who you have introduced in your previous books? Or, perhaps, to involving them in future novels involving the Cold Case Squad?
EB: Sure, they live in the same city and move in similar circles. Many characters from prior novels have already reappeared. For example, Harvey, the foot fetishist, a relatively minor character who stole women's shoes and made suggestive telephone calls to the heroine in MARGIN OF ERROR, has since reappeared as the lead character in two short stories that have appeared in magazines and anthologies.
BRC: An element of your fiction that we've always loved is the interaction among your characters. Readers can truly sense how the characters feel about one another --- from the great work-related relationships (the Cold Case Squad as a whole) to the realistic strain between co-workers (Riley from the new series; Britt versus Gretchen), to true friendships (Britt and Lottie come to mind first). Is character-building one of your favorite aspects of writing fiction? How much time do you spend on character motivation for each novel?
EB: I spend more time with these characters than with my own friends. Each is flawed, with his and her own ghosts and personal problems. They clash, often with each other, yet work as a team to accomplish what seems impossible. They are funny, brave, loyal and very human. They reveal their histories and take on characteristics, personalities and habits of their own as the writing progresses. They often shock, surprise or make me laugh. I often like them better than real people. No wonder I spend so much time alone --- with my characters. They're more fun.
BRC: From all of your characters, do you have a favorite? If so, who and why?
EB: I love them all, probably because I am their Creator. Many of my favorites are relatively minor characters who remain alive and may reappear at any time. Such as Harvey, the fellow with the foot fetish. And Terrance McGee, the mild-mannered librarian who kept his landlady's head in his kitchen freezer in NOBODY LIVES FOREVER. And J.L. Sly, the phony Kung Fu expert, a coward who wanted to look like a big man, then became a real hero when the chips were down in that same book. And Dusty, the doomed and haunted policewoman. The day the villain killed Dusty, I was shocked. Shocked. A friend called that night, heard my voice and asked, "What's wrong?"
"Dusty's dead. I can't believe it," I said tearfully.
"Who? Who?" my friend said, alarmed.
I also loved Lance, the movie star stalked by a stranger in MARGIN OF ERROR, and Joey, the brave little boy abducted by the female serial killer who murdered his father in GARDEN OF EVIL.
A minor character, the hero's detective partner in NOBODY LIVES FOREVER became unexpectedly strong, aggressive and tried to force himself into every scene. He would call, write, knock at the door, or peer in the window. I had to almost physically push him back and finally promised that if he cooled it, he could return as a major character in a future book. He did. He was Dan Flood, the dying detective in MIAMI, IT'S MURDER. Despite his demise, he still refuses to go away and has returned in at least two short stories.
And then, of course, there was Kendall McDonald with the silver blue eyes, the most appealing man in the seven novels in which he appeared. I loved him too. I didn't mean to kill him.
BRC: We enjoyed your technique of mixing Burch's first-person viewpoint with the other characters' viewpoints seen in third-person. What were the advantages and disadvantages of writing in this manner? Will we see this technique in future Cold Case Squad novels, perhaps with the first-person viewpoint of a different Squad member?
EB:Thanks. I had initially intended to do the whole book in third person, but Burch kept whispering in my ear and his stream of consciousness sounded so much better first-person. The book does begin and end in his voice. I listened to him. It seemed so natural. So that was how I did it. That is the joy of writing fiction --- you can entertain, stimulate, be innovative and break the rules. There are no rules in fiction --- if it works. I liked doing it that way and thought about doing something similar with each character, one by one, in future novels. Still, it remains to be seen if they will break out and speak to me in the same way.
BRC: COLD CASE SQUAD focuses on two main cases, and your other novels also often focus on more than one major plot line. Do you write your novels from beginning to end after research, or do you write certain portions of each novel first? How do you keep track of the different subplots and decide what stays in the book and what should be left out?
EB: I write from beginning to end, stopping to do research when necessary. What stays in the book is based on whether it feels and sounds right. I keep track of the various characters and plot lines thanks to my friend Marilyn Lane, also a writer. Unlike me, she is organized and years ago gave me a 32 X 49-inch laminated cardboard all-purpose organizer --- a huge chart --- that I find invaluable. I don't know what sort of business it is intended for or where she found it, but it's perfect! It's sectioned off, like something a bookkeeper would use. There are spaces on the left for the characters' names. To the right is a gridwork of about 40 smaller spaces across and down the board. I put chapter numbers at the top, and then next to each character's name check off the chapters in which they appear. It tells me at a glance who is coming and going, who had center stage last and when various characters were in the same chapter together. It's invaluable. I don't know where Marilyn found it. I've never seen them at Office Depot. I've looked. But luckily, I always write on it with water-soluble ink that wipes off so I can start anew with each book. I've used it now for nine novels and couldn't live without it.
BRC: This summer your nonfiction book THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE is being reissued in June by Pocket Books. Do you anticipate writing any more nonfiction books based on your police reporting career?
EB: Initially I saw THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE as a trilogy. There are only two books, the second being NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU CRY. Perhaps I will write book three someday, but I remain committed to fiction at this stage. The truth can be very grim. Writers like to be tidy. And when writing fiction I am in the driver's seat, I can wrap up the loose ends, solve all the mysteries, and best of all, I can write the last chapter. I can make the good guys win and the bad guys get what they deserve --- so unlike real life, unfortunately. And I can often tell more truth in fiction, inform as I entertain and let my characters vent the outrage I had to suppress as a reporter.
BRC: Will your other nonfiction books (CARR: Five Years of Rape and Murder and NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU CRY) be reprinted in the future?
EB: I would be thrilled and delighted to see it happen. The Carr book was used as a training device for FBI profilers at Quantico. I think it was among the best work I ever did. It took me three years. And NEVER LET THEM SEE YOU CRY is full of heroes. As you know, you don't have to be Rambo to be a hero. Some are overweight truck drivers, nearsighted housewives, stouthearted children and elderly widows. Sometimes just surviving is heroic. Though I wrote about those people for the newspaper, putting their adventures and their noble deeds between the covers of a book in a way makes them immortal --- and that means a great deal to me.
BRC: Did you have any desire or inclination to revise any part of THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE prior to its being reissued?
EB: Absolutely. There has been closure or additional developments in several stories since the book was first published in 1987. So I did update them for the new edition. For example, people always ask me if Amy, the missing girl in the book, was ever found. Hers is one of the cases that I did update.
BRC: You were portrayed by Elizabeth Montgomery in two television movies based on your career. Though it has been almost a decade since the second movie aired, has there been any discussion of new television movies or a series starring another actress as "Edna Buchanan?" Along similar lines, are there plans to adapt more of your fiction for television or film? (We believe the last aired adaptation was 1998's "Crimes of Passion: Nobody Lives Forever" based on NOBODY LIVES FOREVER.)
EB: Elizabeth Montgomery died shortly after they shot the second movie and the project apparently died with her. I loved her. She was magic, a real star. But if you happened to have read THE CORPSE HAD A FAMILIAR FACE, and then saw the movies loosely, very loosely, based on it, you didn't recognize any of the stories. That's because they didn't use any. No one involved with the movie had read the book! When I went out to San Diego where, unfortunately, they were shooting this Miami story, the only person I met on location who had read the book was the manager of the hotel where I stayed. He said he really liked it. It did rate a rave review in the New York Times Sunday Book Section. But Hollywood doesn't read. However, moviemakers do strive for accuracy, in their own way. They had a gold necklace just like the one I always wear made for Elizabeth Montgomery, who played Edna. It says, "I love Miami."
That's about the closest they came to accuracy. The four-legged actor who played my dog was trained to perform the same tricks. But my dogs are much more talented. When I say, "Bang, you're dead," they drop like rocks, and roll on their backs, feet in the air as though rigor mortis has set in. Hollywood cats played my cats, but of course all cats are always acting. It was strange to see somebody else play me in a film. I always suspected that there was another Edna out there, somewhere, doing all the bad things I am always blamed for. Now I know who it was --- Elizabeth Montgomery.
YOU ONLY DIE TWICE, published in 2001, was optioned by Paramount for a feature film but never moved ahead with it. Too bad, because the story is so cinematic. Here is the premise. The naked body of a beautiful woman, a murder victim, washes up on South Beach. Her corpse goes unclaimed, without a name for weeks. She is finally identified as a woman murdered 10 years earlier. Her killer is on death row mere days from execution. Where has she been for the last 10 years? What really happened back then? And, who murdered her this time? The strong female character is one of my favorites. Although she's dead from the start, she emerges as truly unforgettable.
BRC: If COLD CASE SQUAD was adapted for film, which actors/actresses would you cast in the leading roles?
EB: Hummmm. I hadn't thought about it, but Helen Hunt would be a super Lt. K.C. Riley, grieving, brave and hard-driving, a tormented success, living a life full of ironic twists. Benicio Del Toro is Detective Pete Nazario. And, with her talent, Ann-Margaret could cop an Oscar playing Desiree, a.k.a. Big Red, the hard-drinking, aging stripper whose act with a boa constrictor once headlined before she met the man who was her Pearl Harbor. I don't get out to movies as often as I would like, so I don't know the crop of new young actors. But for Craig Burch we'd need a young Gene Hackman, and for Sam Stone, a young Denzel Washington.
BRC: The last several months have seen an outbreak of plagiarism and falsified story allegations against high-profile media outlets. What are your thoughts/observations on this issue?
EB: Sad, outrageous and so damaging to the profession's credibility.
BRC: In your opinion what can newspaper editors and fellow reporters do to prevent the outbreaks from increasing?
EB: Common sense tells you when something or someone isn't right. When that occurs, raise questions, blow the whistle, raise hell. People knew or had suspicions in every case. Why didn't they act sooner?
BRC: In addition to not plagiarizing or falsifying stories what advice do you give to people interested in a writing career, either in fiction or journalism?
EB: Just do it. Plant the seat of your pants on the seat of a chair in front of a keyboard --- and do it. Just one page a day for a year comes to 365 pages. Rewrite it, hone it, polish it, send it, persist. Keep on. Never give up. Do it.
BRC: We must ask: how are the cats, dogs, and Bunjamin?
EB: Bunjamin recently cut me off from the world for days by chewing through my telephone wires. (I wondered why no one called.) When an animal-loving neighbor and I "liberated" him from a lifestyle about to terminate in his imminent demise, I had no clue that rabbits had such sharp teeth and poor judgment. He chews baseboard. Even worse, he hops wildly through the kitchen and utility room and pauses in mid-air to chomp a chunk out of the closet door. Though Bunjamin is small, all the cats --- even Piggy, the huge black tom, once the terror of the neighborhood and more than five times the rabbit's size --- run from him in panic. The only way to prevent bloodshed and force Bunjamin back to his room (the big dog's former crate) is to wave the red feather duster in the air. It seems to revive some primeval survival instinct. Bunjamin clearly perceives it as a giant red bird of prey and flees for his life back to safety where I can slam the door and confine him until his next adventure. Today, for the first time, I glanced up from my newspaper and saw Bunjamin halfway up the stairs to my study --- a place with many crucial wires, to my computer, printer, fax and answering machine. Who knew rabbits could climb stairs?
I'd had zero experience with them the day we "rescued" him, so while cradling him in my arms, I telephoned Purina's 800-number to ask what his diet should be. As they put me on hold, he bit the hell out of my thumb, which spurted blood. After first aid, I logged on to the Internet to search for rabbits/food. The response came instantly. A recipe --- how to cook them in crockpots. I should have printed it out and posted it in Bunjamin's room.
The cats are all fine. They're busy marking their turf, usually my car's windshield or important papers. Although neighbors and I have tried to spay or neuter every stray in the neighborhood and thought we had achieved zero population, new disaster surfaced just yesterday --- a litter of four kittens: two gray, one yellow, one black.
As for the dogs, Punky is a constant joy and age is slowing Gordy's steps. All of them --- dogs, cats and Bunjamin --- are rescues and all are wonderful, but there is a limit. I cannot urge too strongly for everyone to be humane and responsible. Please spay and neuter your pets.
BRC: What are you working on now, and when can readers expect to see it?
EB: The new book, God willing, next year.