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October 12, 2017

The Real-Life Story Behind the Sam Blackman Mystery Series


Mark de Castrique is the author of a mystery series featuring Asheville, NC, private eyes Sam Blackman and Nakayla Robertson, an interracial couple and co-owners of the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency. In this piece, de Castrique explains how a story told to him by a 90-year-old man served as inspiration for BLACKMAN’S COFFIN, the opening novel in the series, and the significance of the William Faulkner quote “The Past is never dead. It’s not even past” in relation to the sixth and latest installment, HIDDEN SCARS, which sees Sam and Nakayla enmeshed in the history of the revolutionary Black Mountain College, which was founded in 1933 and attracted world-renowned educators fleeing Nazi Germany.


“The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.“
     --- William Faulkner, REQUIEM FOR A NUN

The three rode together down the western North Carolina mountainside in the old truck --- a Model T converted into a hearse. One man was black, a funeral director from Asheville. One man, the driver, and his 10-year-old son were white and from the neighboring town of Brevard. The black man had come to the white man, also a funeral director, desperately seeking help to transport a body to Georgia. All he had were a horse and wagon. None of the white funeral homes in Asheville would help him. So, in 1919, through the heart of the Jim Crow South, the three made an eight-hour trek on a mission of mercy.

Rampant segregation meant no public place where they could eat. Arrangements had to be made with the deceased's relatives for lunch along the journey. At noon, they pulled up to a sharecropper’s cabin. An intergenerational gathering greeted them. The patriarch of the black family led the white man and boy into the cabin’s front room. They saw no furniture except for a plank board table and two chairs.  There were only two place settings.

“You and your son will eat first, and we will wait out in the yard.”

The pronouncement caught the guests by surprise. “There’s more room at the table,” the white man protested. “Or we can all eat outside.”

“No, sir. You’re doing a favor for our family. This is the way we want to honor you.”

So the man and his boy sat down and ate while everyone else stood in the dusty yard.

The man who told me this story was 90 years old. He had been that 10-year-old child. His adventure was a haunting indictment of my native South and the historic racism that seems to refuse to die. Also, that nearly 100-year-old lunch is garnished with irony --- the three stopped because they couldn’t eat together and they wound up not eating together. But what struck me the most was the lesson my elderly friend learned. His father told him later, “Son, sometimes the only thing people have to offer is their hospitality, and you always, always take it.”

His story stuck with me, and I needed to exorcise it somehow. The Faulkner quote has a companion from the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My friend’s story fit how the past pulls us back as we struggle in vain against its relentless presence. So I created a contemporary story featuring a white Iraqi war veteran and amputee, Sam Blackman, who meets an African-American woman, Nakayla Robertson, whose sister has been murdered. The only clue is a 90-year-old journal written by a boy about his trip with his father as they help a black funeral director transport a body from Asheville to Georgia. BLACKMAN’S COFFIN provided the means for me to use the true story as the genesis for a mystery novel.

I was pleased with the result, the reviews were good, but then my editor informed me that I wasn’t finished with Sam Blackman. She knew before I did that Sam had more stories to tell. I decided to continue looking at events in the past that create crimes in the present. The rich history of Asheville, North Carolina, and the surrounding mountains have provided opportunities to use factual events to create fictional consequences. And Sam and Nakayla became an interracial couple and co-owners of the Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency.

Their cases have highlighted F. Scott Fitzgerald's visits to Asheville when Zelda was in psychiatric treatment. They've solved a mystery involving Carl Sandburg's mountain farm and its history dating back to the Confederacy. As an interracial couple, they've faced a killer from the days when such relationships were banned by law, and they've untangled the complexity of crimes motivated by a miscarriage of justice that released a guilty man to prey upon innocents.

My new Sam Blackman novel, HIDDEN SCARS, features one of the most unprecedented chapters of western North Carolina history: the establishment of the revolutionary Black Mountain College that held the arts at its core while offering imaginative approaches to the sciences and humanities alike. Founded in 1933, it attracted world-renowned educators fleeing Nazi Germany. Albert Einstein served on the Board of Advisors. Buckminster Fuller created his first geodesic dome there. Although it closed in 1957, in part due to government actions stemming from the Red Scare unleashed by Joe McCarthy, its impact carries into the 21st century and is celebrated through the Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville.

Sam and Nakayla become enmeshed in its history when an 80-year-old woman asks them to look into the death of her brother. The challenge: her brother died in 1948 as a Black Mountain College student. But a film production crew is producing a movie using the college as the setting. Old-timers help with research. When one of them is murdered and the film suffers sabotage, Sam and Nakayla realize their own lives are in jeopardy and past sins reveal hidden scars. Indeed, "the Past is never dead. It's not even past."