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August 21, 2012

Why Nashville is the Perfect Setting for a Crime Novel


Jaden Terrell explains why she thinks Nashville is the perfect setting for a crime novel. She offers a description of the city beyond its Music City roots that outsiders may not be familiar with. As a Nashville author, she uses the city's contrasts in her Jared McKean mysteries; the latest book in her series, A CUP FULL OF MIDNIGHT, is now available.


I fell in love with Nashville when I was nine years old. My father had just gotten a new job, and we were moving here from Charleston, West Virginia, where my mother's family lived. I slept all the way, and when I woke up, we were passing through the heart of the city. The lights in the darkness looked like scattered stars, like the entrance to fairyland. I had never seen anything so beautiful. The thought that it was the perfect setting for a crime novel didn't cross my mind until years later.

Most people think of Nashville as the home of country music, and so it is. Country music’s dichotomous focus on glamour and down-to-earth subjects sets the tone for the city. Where else could a man in a thousand dollar cowboy hat make a million dollars on a song about a tractor ride with his best girl?

It’s not all country music, though. Nashvillians love the arts --- all the arts --- whether a concert by the Nashville symphony, a jaw-dropping performance of Rent, or a collection of Rodin sculptures at the Frist Center for Visual Arts. We love them so much that, for almost 200 years, the city has been called the Athens of the South. To show their pride in the moniker, architects built a full-scale replica of the Parthenon for the 1897 Centennial Exposition with statues and friezes made from molds of the originals. The structure still stands in Centennial Park, and Vanderbilt students toss Frisbees and play guitar in its shadow.

You can see both sides of Nashville’s artistic taste on Music Row, where just a few blocks from the classical-style nude statue, “Musica,” a street musician plays guitar in front of a giant fiberglass catfish in a cowboy hat.

Nashville is a city of contrasts. The annual Swan Ball, held at the Cheekwood botanical gardens and fine arts museum, is a white-tie charity event serving canapes to old-money philanthropists in their fanciest togs. A few weeks later, folks in jeans and cowboy boots attend a different kind of charity event, one where change-from-the sofa-philanthropists eat barbeque ribs with their fingers.

Square in the buckle of the Bible belt, we’re home to more churches --- and more adult entertainment businesses --- per square mile than any other U.S. city, a reflection of the age-old conflict between sin and saintliness that may be best exemplified by the 1987 murder of handyman James Matheny by local minister John David Terry, who had embezzled $30,000 from the church and hoped to fake his own death and start a new life with the stolen funds.

A big city with big-city problems, Nashville has its gangs, drugs, and the usual number of murders. Because it sits at the intersection of three major interstates, it’s also a hub for human trafficking. These provide fodder for any writer who cares to tackle serious societal issues. Yet, just a few miles away are Brady-Bunch suburbs, and a twenty minute drive down I-24 takes you to Walking Horse country, where the politics of Big Lick horse showing have led more than once to murder. Whatever drama you choose to write about, large or small, gritty or homespun, you’re never far from it.

I'm not the first mystery writer to set a series in Music City. Steven Womack set his excellent Harry Denton private detective series here, and he was followed by journalist-turned novelist Chester Campbell, New York Times bestselling authors J.T. Ellison and Jennie Bentley. Of course, part of the appeal for us locals is that we can drive across town to the scene of a fictional crime or quaff a drink in the famous Tootsie's Orchid Lounge and call it research.

I still catch my breath when I see Nashville’s night skyline. From Titan’s stadium, the twin spires of the Bellsouth Batman building and the swoop of the nearby Arena cut into the darkness, and the neon signs along the riverfront are rippling lights in the Cumberland. It still looks like the entrance to fairyland, but as anyone who knows the fey can tell you, all magic has its dark side. It’s this line between darkness and light --- and the darkness sometimes hidden by light --- that makes Nashville the ideal setting for a mystery.