Behind the Book: The Ways of the Dead by Neely Tucker
by Neely Tucker
In the first days of 2001, I sat in a courtroom in Washington, D.C., a few feet from a man named Darryl Turner. A slender man of no particular good looks, the only thing remarkable about him was his seat: as the defendant in a third serial killing, with at least three more bodies linked to him.
The hearing only lasted twenty minutes, Turner didn’t speak, and U.S. Marshals soon escorted him back to jail. He would later be convicted of two rape-and-strangulation homicides and prosecutors would hold in abeyance two more slayings as long as he did not appeal his life sentence.
No one would ever know, save Turner, how many women he killed, but the general thought is at least six and possibly nine. He preyed upon prostitutes and drug users in a rough part of the city and by the time his victims’ disappearances were noted – much less their bodies recovered – forensic proof was scarce.
As a journalist for The Washington Post with a good deal of war and conflict reporting experience, the case intrigued me for a number of reasons. The scant public attention paid the victims, who were all black (as was Turner), impoverished and living on the margins of life. The brutal success Turner enjoyed – he was stuffing women’s bodies beneath the floorboards of the row house in which he and his wife rented an upstairs flat, or in the abandoned house next door, and still police took two years to arrest him. His absolutely unremarkable nature. He worked as a clerk in a liquor store. It was impossible, that day in the court, to assign any sort of oddity to him, much less menace.
Finally, I was also struck by how morbidly timeless this story was. Change a few of the details, and you have the Whitechapel Murders in 1880s London and the specter of Jack the Ripper.
So, as a modern detective and horror story, I started with an idea about evil, based on race and class and the benign indifference of the rest of society. Then I set about changing things. A wealthy, white teenage girl, the daughter of a powerful judge, becomes a victim in the neighborhood, setting off a media firestorm. I needed a reporter as the pseudo-detective, because the story needed to be about the media’s power to create public narratives – just as they did in the Whitechapel killings – so I created a functional alcoholic named Sully Carter. Because of his job, Sully has the ability to gain entry into the lowest and highest divisions of society. But, because he’s not a cop, he’s there on the forbearance of his interview subjects, which means he has to tread lightly.
All of these things combined to form a fascinating moral dilemma: What would a flawed, troubled man do when faced with a difference between what he knows and what he can print?
There’s no good answer to that question, and Sully Carter doesn’t have a lot of good options in The Ways of the Dead. There’s only what you can do and what you should do, and, as Sully knows, that is a very dangerous place to reside.
Neely Tucker’s journalism career spans more than 25 years, including 14 at The Washington Post where he still works and eight as a foreign correspondent. His first novel – The Ways of the Dead – is out now in paperback, and his second – Murder D.C. – publishes in hardback today.