The Real-Life Story Behind the Sam Blackman Mystery Series



“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 ten-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 ninety years old. He had been that ten-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 one-hundred-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, 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 twenty-first century and is celebrated through the Black Mountain College Museum in Asheville.

Sam and Nakayla become enmeshed in its history when an eighty-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."

This article first appeared in The Bookreporter (www.bookreporter.com) on October 12, 2017.

How To Kill Your Reader

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Danger is a crucial element in a mystery novel. A killer is on the loose and no one is safe. But sometimes the killer can be the writer, and the victim, the reader.

I'm talking about when the author turns into a preacher and the story becomes a sermon. Now I am not against using a mystery novel for social commentary. Writing doesn't happen in a moral vacuum, and, after all, isn't a mystery a morality play? As fellow North Carolina author Margaret Maron said there is no topic that can't be dealt with in a mystery novel. The problem occurs when the author's opinions come across so heavy handedly that the issue is not the context for the story but the story becomes the platform for the issue, robbing the reader of the opportunity to draw his or her own conclusions.

One safer technique is to draw from the Past as a way to compare and contrast issues in the Present. I love F. Scott Fitzgerald's last line in
The Great Gatsby – "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the Past." And William Faulkner's line from Requiem for a Nun – "The Past is never dead. It's not even Past." Pulling the Past into the Present is the way I've structured my Sam Blackman series, and the technique has allowed the reader to examine issues within the context of a story. For example, the 1967 Supreme Court ruling on Loving v. Virginia struck down the old Confederate states' ban on interracial marriage. My novel, A Murder in Passing, investigates a murder that occurred because of that ruling, but Sam and Nakayla, my interracial couple, happened to be investigating that death at the same time North Carolina was voting for a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The parallels were clear for the readers to see on their own.

In my new Sam Blackman book,
Hidden Scars, I wanted to address an issue that concerns me, namely the direction of education in North Carolina, where budgets are being slashed in public schools and universities for liberal and fine arts programs. I believe it is important to encourage the imagination and for students to learn how to think and express and not just what to think and express. The book uses famed Black Mountain College as the backdrop for a crime in the Present. For those not familiar with it, the small college near Asheville, NC, existed from 1933 to 1957, had the arts at its core, but taught science, math, and design, combining the imaginative with the pragmatic. Albert Einstein was on the Board of Advisers, world-renowned professors who fled Nazi Germany were on the faculty, and luminaries like Buckminster Fuller were involved in workshops which created his first successful geodesic dome. In the midst of a murder investigation, Sam and Nakayla learn the history of this revolutionary institution, and I hope the reader comes to appreciate its legacy as well.

The only preaching I hope I do in this book comes in what I consider a more appropriate venue - ACKNOWLEDGMENTS. "In the age of The Art of the Deal, the art of being – being loved, being compassionate, being welcoming – is an art I hope all the heroes of my stories personify, and an art we can practice and defend with the assurance that we, readers and writers alike, are on the right side of history."

The Last Writing Hurdle


ARC Cover - Hidden Scars for WEB

Sam Blackman and HIDDEN SCARS –
I don't know if this is true for my fellow writers, but proofing can be the most difficult part of the process.  I received the ARC today for October's Sam Blackman Mystery and will begin the last review for typos or formatting errors that have eluded my editor, my copy editor, and myself.  Amazing that there is always something that the brain "fixes" and we don't see.
Hope springs eternal that the October release will be typo-free.  The mystery is set against the historic backdrop of Black Mountain College and the impressive legacy of the students, faculty, and mission it brought to Asheville and Black Mountain.

What's in a Name?

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You've heard the expression, "You can't judge a book by its cover." Yet, despite this admonition, publishers and authors pay a great deal of attention to cover design. Is it intriguing? Is it compelling? Cover art can become distinctive branding for series or even authors themselves. But as important as a cover might be for attracting readers, a title is what lives on long after the dust jacket has disintegrated into, well, dust.

Who can ever forget such classics as
The High-Bouncing Lover, Fiesta, The Last Man in Europe, and Tote the Weary Load? How many readers wouldn't have bothered to pick them up if not for these catchy titles? Had other choices prevailed, the books we know so well by these all-to-familiar names could have been long forgotten. Each title so perfectly captures its story that you find it difficult to conceive of them otherwise.

Which brings me to my own title experience. For the last year I've been writing a sequel to my Washington DC thriller,
The 13th Target. I thought Rusty Mullins was investigating A Most Intelligent Murder, the title I'd created at the story's inception. But a funny thing happened along the way. The story decided it wanted to go in another direction, one leading to national and even global consequences. The cover design captured that, but the title didn't. So, although the story contains a most intelligent murder, my editor suggested The Singularity Race as more accurately describing the driving force behind Rusty Mullins' dangerous investigation.

Does the title make a difference? Stay tuned for the Fall 2016 release when we'll find out. Meanwhile, read or re-read one of the four classics I've mentioned and think how other title options could have ruined these literary treasures. Imagine picking up F. Scott Fitzgerald's
The High-Bouncing Lover burdened with the title The Great Gatsby, or Ernest Hemingway's Fiesta as The Sun Also Rises, or George Orwell's The Last Man in Europe with the innocuous title 1984, and finally Margaret Mitchell's Civll War epic Tote The Weary Load if christened the imminently forgettable Gone With The Wind. Yes, these titles were actually in the running.

What's in a name? Sometimes, everything.

The Simple Art of Murder


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A few days ago I sent the manuscript of a mystery novel to my editor. It was a good way to start the new year. I've now entered that limbo period where I wait for her response – how can it be strengthened, what opportunities have I missed, is the story even publishable?

During the waiting, I've learned to go ahead and think about the next project. That process includes reading, daydreaming, and imagining "what if?" scenarios for my series' characters until a new idea takes root. And I like to return to the master storytellers who have set the standard for crime fiction in America.

A particular favorite is
Raymond Chandler and his marvelous essay, "The Simple Art of Murder." I either learn or remember something each time I read it. Most recently, this single sentence stood out: "In everything that can be called art there is a quality of redemption." For Chandler, the quality can be discovered in his hero/anti-hero detective, the knight-errant whose quest is among mean streets while he remains a man of honor.

But the sentence about art has a broader connotation than Chandler's groundbreaking work, one that connects me in a completely unexpected way to another movement happening during the time he penned his words: the creation and development of
Black Mountain College.

Founded in 1933 in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina, this experiment in higher education was as much commune as campus. No grades, no set curriculum, no outside board of trustees, but simply students and teachers living and learning together. At the core of their studies, whether in natural sciences, mathematics, or literature, stood the arts – visual arts, musical arts, dramatic arts – and they were used and integrated in exploration of the more traditional subjects.

The goal of the college wasn't to turn out artists but rather to create graduates who were well-rounded citizens of a democracy. It focused on artistic exploration with practical application; in short, the supposition that art fuels the imagination, instills curiosity and connects the intellect to the world around us.
Albert Einstein served on the board of advisors. At Black Mountain College, Buckminster Fuller worked on his geodesic dome and Merce Cunningham founded his company of modern dance.

The bottom line is the arts encourage and develop a way of seeing and hearing in fresh, new ways, creating a mindset that resists calcification and enables breakthroughs of thought no matter the discipline. In an age where education budgets are slashing funds for the arts or eliminating programs entirely, we could be losing a critical source of inspiration for our imagination. Raymond Chandler's title "The Simple Art of Murder" might be rephrased, "The Simple Murder of Art."

So, what do Chandler and Black Mountain College have in common? During my time of waiting for my editor's notes, the two offer food for thought and fuel for imagination of a potential story.

The renowned painter
Jacob Lawrence was also an instructor at Black Mountain College. He said, "All artists are constantly looking for something and they don't always know what."

I'll substitute "detectives" for "artists" and go looking in Black Mountain for a story of redemption.