Showing the Human in the Inhumane: Why Lindsay Hunter Loves True Crime
On Crime Storytelling and Why Aiming for Closure Can Be Problematic
I have been an avid consumer of true crime for decades now. Before podcasts, I watched the Paradise Lost documentaries, Dateline NBC (a favorite, because of Keith Morrison’s purple prose and swooning affect, not to mention the hardboiled charm of Josh Mankiewicz), 20/20, and Cold Case Files and Wicked Attraction, et cetera ad infinitum. As a child, my family watched Rescue 911, Unsolved Mysteries, and Cops, shows that featured people in distress and unexplained disappearances—even as I wasn’t allowed to watch Beverly Hills 90210 because the teens were promiscuous and sassy.
I have often wondered—and been asked—what it is about true crime that keeps me coming back to the well again and again. I used to joke that I was gathering material, that as a writer, surely this counted as research for whatever I was working on.
Only now do I see that that isn’t a joke; it’s true.
In the early winter of 2020, I heard an episode of the Dateline NBC podcast called “Secrets on Hot Springs Drive.” The episode detailed the friendship between Laverne “Kay” Parsons and Becky Sears, Becky’s affair with Kay’s husband, and Kay’s violent murder. Kay was bludgeoned with first a hammer and then a baseball bat, and when I got to the part where they revealed who committed the murder, I was overcome.
I could not stop thinking about the relationships in those homes on Hot Springs Drive–the friendship between Becky and Kay, Becky’s affair with Kay’s husband, Becky’s relationship with her husband and sons. How, exactly, could this happen? Who was this mother; who was she really? This, to me, was the central mystery. I knew I had to write about it.
True crime is storytelling. Like any form of literature, sometimes that storytelling is cliche. Is bad. There is a formula that true crime all too often falls into: an angelic—often white—victim, a dedicated investigator, an evil perpetrator. There is no deeper meaning, no mystery left unsolved, no dark corner that hasn’t been illuminated by an investigative journalist’s handy flashlight.As a writer, I am interested in true crime because of the choices people make, what they try to hide, the endless quest for truth and meaning, that vaunted notion of “motive.”
When true crime storytelling is good, however, there are questions that remain, a lingering darkness, an examination of the rippling effects of the crime. And that can create discomfort. Because how can we live in a world in which a mother is so violently beaten and left to die? We can only live in that world if it can be chalked up to evil. If the murderer was always a little “off.” We’ve become safer because we can recognize the signs now. We can prevent it from happening to us.
As a writer, I am interested in true crime because of the choices people make, what they try to hide, the endless quest for truth and meaning, that vaunted notion of “motive.” These have long galvanized my writing. My first novel was about two teenage girls being catfished–and stalked–by a grown man who was fresh out of prison. And then they sort of (spoiler alert) kill him. The girls speak, and he speaks.
In my search for understanding, for a way to illuminate the whole story, the whole world, I needed to write from the perspective of both the stalker and the stalked. I needed to show the human among the inhumane. You’ll find that same drive in my story featuring a town’s ambivalence about a missing girl, in my story about a child grappling with the aftermath of an apocalypse, in my story about a giant baby with his own violent tendencies.
Standing in my kitchen, listening to “Secrets on Hot Springs Drive,” my brain tuned out the resolution of the episode. I knew–as a consumer of true crime and as a writer–that the answer was never truly going to be known. Josh Mankiewicz had to bring the episode to a close, but it could never scratch the surface of what it was that led to such a bloody end.
I wanted to get close; I wanted to locate something recognizable, something human, in this sordid tale–the people in and around it, the community. In each of those is a world of emotion, and choice, and denial, and action. What was Becky’s home like? What was Kay’s home like? How did their friendship unfold, and then curdle? What did Becky’s children yearn for; what did they deny? What was it like being her child? How close is too close?
This month, Pantheon Books has reissued Helen Garner’s This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial, about Robert Farquharson, whose three children died after he slid their car into a pond in Winchelsea, Victoria. In the Los Angeles Times, Garner reflects on a time in court when Farquharson held the door for her. She thought, “‘Oh, he’s a person. He’s an actual human being.’ And as such, he deserves—not my respect; that’s something people earn–but my attention.”
Becky Sears, Kay Parsons, Christopher Bowers—real people who inspired the characters of Jackie, Theresa, and Douglas in the novel–had my attention. As a mother of sons, and as a writer.
I know very well that we all too often center murderers in true crime and in pop culture. We fetishize the motives of serial killers; we obsess over the details. I didn’t want to do the same in my novel. I wanted the crime to be known very plainly from the start. I wanted the victim to have a voice. For her family to have a voice, both before and after she was killed. I wanted time to pass; I wanted to see how the world changed. And yes, I wanted to hear from the murderer, from their family, too.I am not offering answers. It feels to me that resolution, or closure, is another way we can minimize the actual lives of victims and their loved ones, and what happened to them.
But what I am offering in this book are questions. I am not offering answers. It feels to me that resolution, or closure, is another way we can minimize the actual lives of victims and their loved ones, and what happened to them. If the novel sticks with you because there is lingering discomfort, and because you also haven’t figured out how something like this could happen, all the better.
My novel differs from the real story in many ways. The facts slipped away as I wrote, but I was not writing a book of true crime. I never listened to “Secrets on Hot Springs Drive” again. I didn’t want the details to get in the way of what I was really after: a reckoning of motherhood and marriage and family, and the way violence can shift and change everything around it as time passes.
Hot Springs Drive by Lindsay Hunter is available via Grove Atlantic.