Monday, October 18, 2021

The Story Behind the Story:
“Five Will Die,” by Trace Conger

(Editor’s note: This is the 89th installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes from Trace Conger, a Cincinnati, Ohio, resident who writes a thriller series starring Connor Harding [Mirage Man], a former fixer for a New York mob family; and another series featuring unlicensed private eye Finn Harding, aka Mr. Finn [The Prison Guard’s Son]. Conger won a Shamus Award for his debut novel, 2014’s The Shadow Broker. His suspense novella, The White Boy, won the Fresh Ink Award for Best Novella of 2020. Below he writes about Five Will Die, a police procedural being released this month in both print and e-book editions.)

I’ve had an interest in serial killers for as long as I can remember. It was one of the reasons I enrolled in college with aspirations of a criminology degree. My major shifted to creative writing my sophomore year, but that’s a story for another time. To me, one of the more interesting aspects of serial murderers was their enthusiasm toward taunting the police via letters to the department or published in the local paper. All the big boys did it, from the Zodiac Killer and BTK to Son of Sam and even Jack the Ripper.

But while all of these headline-makers taunted the authorities after they began their murder sprees, I wondered if anyone had contacted the police before claiming their first victim. Less of a “catch me if you can” angle and more of an “I’m coming to your town, get ready” approach. As far as I know, that’s never happened. So I made it happen.

My sixth novel, Five Will Die (Black Mill), follows Tim Burke, a retired Cleveland homicide detective who moves to the sleepy town of Lincoln, Ohio. Three years after his retirement, Burke takes up as that town’s sheriff to stave off the boredom of small-town life.

In Lincoln, the only thing Sheriff Burke has to worry about is who spray-painted the side of Walt Tanner’s barn. That all changes when someone slips a note under his door. A note claiming five people will die in Lincoln.

At first, Burke and his two green deputies dismiss it as a prank by local teenagers, the same troublemakers he singled out for defacing Walt’s barn.

Then the first body turns up. Then the second.

Writing this novel was a personal experience for me. Actually, all of my books have touched me personally, but Five Will Die was different.

As readers will learn, Burke didn’t retire from the Cleveland Police Department voluntarily. A panic disorder, triggered by a brutal, unsolved case, punched his ticket for him. His role as Lincoln’s sheriff was a compromise with himself. He gets to return to his law-enforcement roots and contribute something positive to society, but in a much less violent environment, one that won’t feed his panic disorder.

Where’s the personal tie? In early 2020, I began experiencing severe stomach pain. Gut-wrenching stuff. I had all the tests, and a few procedures and a few grand in medical bills later, my doctors told me nothing was wrong with me. All that expensive diagnostic imagery couldn’t find a thing.

For most people, the idea of medical tests confirming there was nothing physically wrong with them would bring a sigh of relief. Apparently, that’s not how my brain works. My brain was convinced the medical community missed something. So, I demanded more tests, which I got, and which confirmed the results of all the other tests.

That’s when the darkness came. On my worst days, I would wake up and immediately lose feeling in my hands and feet. I lost a tremendous amount of weight in a short time. I didn’t eat. I didn’t sleep. I was falling apart. I felt an invisible weight crushing me. It took so much energy just to get out of bed or off the couch. The most lingering sensation was that of someone cinching a belt around my chest and pulling as hard as they could, as if trying to cut me in half.

Then I talked to a psychologist who confirmed that I had a panic disorder. Mine was severe, almost as if I was trapped in some panic-loop for days on end. She explained the science behind it, and I was floored at how my noggin was causing so much physical pain.

I worked with a few professionals who gave me ways to cope. One of those coping mechanisms was to journal. They said writing about your feelings and sending them into the ether via (in my case) a leather-bound journal with fancy paper helped. But there was a problem. I hate journaling. Loathe it. Always have.

To stay busy, and to get my mind off the dark shit my brain was conjuring up, I decided to start my next novel. I already had the serial-killer-alerts-the-police plot in my head, but I didn’t know that, like me, Tim Burke would suffer from a panic disorder. But all of a sudden, he did. He began experiencing the same things I had, and I found it therapeutic to torment him as my own mind had tormented me. It wasn’t journaling, but it was just as effective.

I wrote off and on. Concentrating on something other than what was happening to me gave me a reason to get out of bed every day. It likely saved my life, too.

(Left) Author Trace Conger

Five Will Die was a departure for me. It was my first police procedural. I usually write about P.I.s and mob fixers, all of whom straddle the line between criminal and investigator, between good guy and bad guy. Burke was my first truly good guy.

The story unfolded pretty quickly. The ending shifted on me and went in a different direction than I had outlined. Like a bucking bronco, sometimes you just have to hang on and see where the story takes you. The killer wasn’t who I expected it to be, which surprised the hell out of me. That’s the fun part of the writing process.

As the story unfolds, the investigation takes Burke and his team in different directions. With a lack of physical evidence, Burke needs help, and he receives it from Maren Krueger, a free-spirited criminal psychologist. Maren introduces into this tale the art of criminal profiling and builds a list of suspects based on psychological traits instead of physical evidence. Burke soon discovers that everyone in Lincoln is a suspect, including some on his payroll.

Burke also uncovers a link to another small Ohio town, where a killer left a similar note, claimed five victims, and vanished without a trace. This offers a glimpse of what awaits Lincoln if he can’t catch his killer, and the prospect of not making an arrest sends his disorder into overdrive.

As Burke’s condition worsens, propelled by the floundering investigation and his inability to seek help for what’s happening to him, his health begins to unravel. He hides his condition from his colleagues, convinced they’ll run him out of town, just like the chief of police did in Cleveland.

You’ll have to read the novel to see if Burke overcomes his debilitating condition and whether he’s able to keep it together long enough to solve the case. I suspect you may think you already have the answer, but I wouldn’t be so sure. Like I said earlier, stories have a way of shifting on you and going in a direction you didn’t see coming.

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