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May 2, 2019

Kate White: What My Mom Dared to Read to Me

Posted by tom

We are kicking off the 10th(!) year of our Mother’s Day Author Blog series with New York Times bestselling author Kate White, whose latest novel, SUCH A PERFECT WIFE, releases on May 7th and features true-crime writer Bailey Weggins in another page-turning mystery. For years, Kate thought that her longing to write suspense fiction was due in large part to her childhood obsession with Nancy Drew books. However, as she set out to write this piece for us, she came to the realization that the poem “The Highwayman” --- which her mom frequently read to her and her brothers --- played an even bigger role.

When I was five years old, I made a decision that I never wavered from: I was going to be a writer when I grew up. And my mother --- constantly and wonderfully --- helped lay the groundwork for that to happen.

One of the nicest things my late mom did, when I was just 13, was to buy me a used typewriter (in case that word doesn’t ring a bell, it was something we used before the introduction of the desktop computer!). Suddenly it made story writing so much easier for me, and the next year I even used the typewriter to start my own little magazine that I distributed at my high school.

But probably most important of all, my mother regularly read to me and my five brothers --- not only stories and novels but also poetry. She’d been an English major in college (and later a writer and author), and she knew many poems by heart, which she would recite to us at bedtime. There was one poem we begged for again and again: “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.

For years, I’ve attributed my longing to write suspense fiction in large part to my girlhood obsession with Nancy Drew books (can you relate?), but as I set out to write this Mother’s Day blog, I realized that “The Highwayman” might have played an even bigger role. I loved that poem so completely as a child. It was dark and thrilling, and it made my heart pound right from the very first stanza.

          “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
          The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
          The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
          And the highwayman came riding—
          The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.”

What a killer opening, right? How could you not be hooked? And it only gets better from there. The highwayman of the poem --- a notorious robber who worked along the roadways of Britain --- is in love with Bess, the beautiful daughter of an innkeeper. He shows up at her window one night and promises to return at some point the following day after he’s snatched a prize of “yellow gold.”

But thanks to a tip, a troop of King George’s red-coated soldiers shows up at the inn at around sunset with a plan to wait by the windows and shoot the highwayman on sight. Not only do they tie up poor Bess, they bind a musket to her with the muzzle beneath her breast --- to guarantee she’ll stay quiet and not reveal their presence.

After a long, torturous wait, we finally hear the “tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot” of “horsehoofs” and know with dread in our hearts that the highwayman is about to appear over the brow of the hill. And that the red coats will take him down.

But that doesn’t happen, at least not that night. Because Bess manages to wiggle free enough to place her finger on the trigger of the musket and pull, so that a bullet “shattered her breast…and warned him --- with her death.”

Okay, you may wonder, isn’t this all a bit too… grim for a mother to be reading to her kids? We didn’t think so. My brothers and I still talk about how much we loved hearing my mother recite it to us.

And, as I’ve recently concluded, it was my mom’s frequent, mesmerizing reading of that poem --- perhaps more than Nancy, the spunky amateur sleuth --- that first gave me my appreciation for the dark and the mysterious in life, for dangerous men (and women!), for pulse-pounding pacing, for stories that take your breath away, and for endings that come with a crazy, unexpected, disastrous twist.

I try hard to incorporate those elements into the mysteries and psychological thrillers I write --- though I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a line as riveting as this one: “The landlord’s black-eyed daughter had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.”