The Devil Inside Me

chicago holmes

Love mysteries? Crime novels? Whodunnits? Read on. If you like history as a basis for fiction, even better. AND if you like the psychology behind why people kill, especially serial killers, The Devil Inside Me is right up your alley. I’ve dedicated my posts thus far to my writing journey and advice for writers, but this one is for the readers!

What’s it about? 

A purported descendant of Dr. H. H. Holmes resurrects his family legacy. Gruesome discoveries litter Chicago, and the murderer has no desire to hide these deeds like his (or her?) serial-killing ancestor. Instead, the modus operandi is all about bringing back the fame and glory of Holmes to the Windy City–and to the family name.

Detective Davis Dunleavy has his own family legacy: his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather all bled blue for the Chicago Police Department. Dunleavy is called in to make sense of the crime scene peculiarities, but unlikely suspects and scant evidence mean he doesn’t make the Holmes connection fast enough for the murderer’s timetable. When the killing spree collides with his past, Dunleavy must determine what his own legacy will be. 

Frequently touted as “Chicago’s First Serial Killer,” if you don’t know who Dr. H. H. Holmes is, just Google. Essentially the good doctor was a scam artist and murderer who lured women to their deaths in his murder castle–yes, murder castle–with his charming personality. (Check out Holly Carden’s super cool rendition of the murder castle.)

Last year, my book club chose to read Erik Larsen’s Devil in the White City. I wasn’t thrilled with the choice. It’s non-fiction. I’d rather read, well, just about anything than non-fiction. But I began, and holy heck. Erik Larsen’s work does not read like a dry textbook–it reads like fiction and alternates between the intersecting histories of Holmes and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition–also known as the World’s Fair–in Chicago. I had to kept reading the preface to ensure that it was indeed not fictional.

Reading Devil in the White City gave me dozens of ideas for writing about Holmes. Then the book club arranged a trip to Chicago for–yep, you guessed it–The Devil in the White City tour. Led by a charismatic tour guide who knew his stuff, the bus tour stopped at assorted locations that had some sort of connection to Holmes.

My interest piqued further.

THEN, the History channel’s American Ripper show arrived. Jeff Mudgett, H. H. Holmes’ great-great-grandson was the driving force behind the show, wanting to know if his murdering gramps might also be Jack the Ripper. (Mudgett has also written his own non-fiction, Bloodstains, about his family’s past.) I watched, then re-watched and took notes. At this point, my husband was questioning my sanity–and maybe his safety. I still wasn’t sure what my novel would look like, but I knew I had to write something about the man–not to glorify him or his actions, but to explore the whys behind it. (Disclaimer: Jeff Mudgett is not my inspiration for this murderous descendant of Holmes. He seems like a perfectly nice guy.)

My quest turned to reading whatever I could on this charmer. Adam Selzer, a Chicago native with a penchant for truth-telling, wrote H. H. Holmes: The True Story of the Devil in the White City. He was also a recognized expert on the American Ripper show, and he shares his vast knowledge and research on his website and in his Chicago walking tour about Holmes–totally different from the other, just as interesting and informative.

Somewhere in between American Ripper and going back to Chicago for Selzer’s tour (on a very brisk November day…brrrrr…), my plot bunny officially made its nest in my brain:

Our antagonist’s family made it their tradition to hide their salacious past. I mean, who wants to be known as the grandkid of a serial killer? But within the family, it was also tradition to pass on the stories of their ancestors: stories of power and might forged by being the first settlers of a small town in New Hampshire in the 1600s. 

He has decided to eschew his name and live life as he feels his family should have been all along, by showcasing their talents to bring them power. His version of that? Murder, just like Holmes. Repeatedly, until everyone notices.

Detective Davis Dunleavy gets saddled with first one murder, then another. With crime scenes as clean as a bottle of Clorox, and no apparent connections among any of the murder victims, he is at a loss for leads. The only connection he can find: they’re all taking place in locations that have something to do with the World’s Fair, and they’re all taking place in a manner consistent with Holmes’ modus operandi. The problem? Everyone around him thinks he’s crazy for even thinking so.

Dunleavy struggles to get a break in the case until the killer decides to lend him a hand–just figuratively speaking–but with it comes a threat that could end Dunleavy’s flawless career. He must tread carefully to uncover the killer–because this killer has no problem continuing his spree for as long as it takes.

Whatcha think? Sounds good? Needs a different twist? Want to read a snippet from chapter one? Sign up for my emailing list here!

 

What Harriet the Spy Taught Me

HarrietSpy6

A couple of posts back, I flippantly said that if Harriet the Spy was my favorite book in fourth grade, why would I ever deviate from that genre when writing?  To my surprise, a few of you messaged and said that you, too, loved Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet, and before I knew it, I was taking a trip back to where my love of mystery and thrillers began. 

My earliest screen-viewing memories include Clue, Macgyver, The Twilight Zone, and perhaps my favorite as a kid: Murder, She Wrote. When I had to write about the merits of The Scarlet Letter in high school, I focused almost entirely on the who-REALLY-is-the-father mystery and the psychology behind choices made. A good foundation built for my future self as a Law and Order junkie.

And then I discovered Agatha Christie. Maybe it was my Harriet the Spy training (I did run around my grandma’s neighborhood one summer with a spy notebook), but my thirteen year old self had gotten pretty good at solving those Murder, She Wrote episodes. When I picked up Hallowe’en Party, I was blown away. I didn’t have Angela Lansbury’s knowing glances to help me along, you know, and it was Christie’s writing that taught me what close reading really was. I also thoroughly blame her for my initial feelings of inadequacy when contemplating penning a mystery. My feelings were such that my first true attempt at a novel was in a completely different genre. We know where that landed.

When I was doing a bit of research for this post, I found a Writer’s Digest guest column by Jennifer McMahon, author of The Night Sister and The Winter People, in which she says to “think about the books you love, the ones you really lose yourself in. If those are mysteries, don’t try to write an historical romance or a quiet literary novel…Write what you love.” I only wish I’d found this post a couple of years ago. My current work-in-progress is mystery/crime fiction with a historical twist. I agree with Ms. McMahon: if it’s in your gut, if it’s in your heart, write it. Don’t try to write what you aren’t. Or, as Harriet the Spy’s nanny, Ole Golly said, “Sometimes you have to lie. But to yourself you must always tell the truth.”

Readers and writers, what books have been instrumental in making you who you are? I know there are as many varied responses as there are personalities out there! (And if you’d like to know more about Harriet the Spy, check out School Library Journal’s commentary. If you have kiddos, it’s a wonderful book to share.

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