Monday, April 03, 2023

The Story Behind the Story:
“The Dead of Night,” by Elaine Viets

(Editor’s note: This is the 94th entry in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. It comes from prolific Hollywood, Florida, mystery novelist Elaine Viets. A winner of the Anthony, Agatha, and Lefty awards, Viets has penned dozens of books in four different series, including those starring St. Louis, Missouri, newspaper columnist Francesca Vierling [Backstab, Doc in the Box] and her latest, focused around Angela Richman, a death investigator working in a wealthy St. Louis suburb. The essay below provides the eccentric and ominous background to her latest Richman yarn, The Dead of Night, due out this week from Severn House.)

A Transylvania tomb and a 200-year-old curse gave me the bones for my new, seventh Angela Richman, death investigator, mystery, The Dead of Night. This Transylvania is in the United States. I’m talking about Transylvania University.

Transylvania is a real, private university, and an old one at that. Founded back in 1780, the name has nothing to do with vampires. Transylvania is Latin for “through the woods.” The university was located in a forested area that later became Lexington, Kentucky. It’s known by staff and students as “Transy.”

Transy goes all out each year for Halloween, the way New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras. At Transy, the Halloween celebration lasts all week, with PumpkinMania, a pumpkin-carving contest, a cider bar, and food trucks.

Perhaps the oddest event is a raffle. The winners get to spend Halloween night in a cold, creepy tomb.

As John Friedlein, with Transy’s marketing and communications team, explains, “students actually compete with each other for the honor, which is said to appease the spirit of the deceased—Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, a [botany] professor who cursed the school back in the 1800s.”

(Left) Zoologist, botanist, writer, and polyglot Constantine Rafinesque

Rafinesque—now known as Raf—spent seven productive years (1819-1826) at Transy, teaching, researching, and squabbling with his colleagues. Raf discovered and named various flora and fauna, including “Rafinesque’s big-eared bat,” a scary-looking sucker with enormous ears. Raf’s bat is now the school’s sports mascot.

Transy finally booted the quarrelsome teacher, “following a rumor that he had slept with the college president’s wife,” explained onetime editor Allison Spivey in the school’s newspaper, The Rambler.

The school’s periodic bad luck, including fires and lots of “very spooky, weird stuff,” was blamed on Raf’s curse. After his dismissal, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he lectured and researched until his passing in the fall of 1840 at age 56.

In the 1920s, bones believed to be Raf’s were brought back to Transy. They were buried on campus beneath the steps of the Old Morrison building, a Greek Revival landmark completed in 1834.

For The Dead of Night, I changed names, facts, and the location, transporting the cursed crypt 337 miles west to fictional Chouteau County, home of the one-percent. Chouteau County is based on the rich parts of St. Louis County, Missouri, which I covered for many years as a newspaper reporter. Raf became professor “Mean Gene” Cortini, and he’s buried in Chouteau Forest University’s crypt. Mean Gene’s crypt is far more elaborate than Raf’s resting place. Mean Gene’s was spruced up with a marble bier and Victorian angels.

But like Raf, Mean Gene has been causing death and destruction in Chouteau County for some two centuries.

(Right) Author Elaine Viets.

The local fat cats don’t give away a night in Mean Gene’s crypt. They’re too rich to give away anything. Transy’s student raffle became a fund-raising auction in Chouteau County. During the auction depicted in The Dead of Night, outsider Trey Lawson, son of a hedge funder, challenges the old money elite cats who rule Chouteau County. Trey bids an outrageous $1.3 million and wins the auction and a night in the cursed crypt. In addition to the prestige, if Trey can spend the night in that vault, he’ll become a member of the exclusive Chouteau Founders Club, the unacknowledged rulers of the county. Lydia, his fiancée, joins Trey in the crypt. The doors are locked at 11:37 p.m., the time of Mean Gene’s death, in front of witnesses. A guard is posted outside the tomb, and a camera is trained on the entrance.

Death investigator Angela Richman is uneasy about this auction. She works for the Chouteau County medical examiner’s office, and she believes there’s too much money and power at stake. Her fears are ignored—even laughed at.

The next morning, the tomb is unlocked with great fanfare. Trey is only the second person to stay the night in the cursed crypt since the 1980s. Chouteau County is his. The media, as well as the university brass gather for the ceremonial unlocking of the vault at 6 a.m.

But the couple’s triumph turns to horror. Trey and Lydia are dead, their bodies mutilated on the marble.

Angela Richman and her best friend, Detective Jace Budewitz, have to solve this locked-tomb mystery.


Mary Garrett said...

Brilliant book . . . and you couldn't PAY me enough to spend the night in that tomb.

John Marshall Tanner said...

Timely, considering that just this past week, Transylvania's women's basketball team became the undefeated winner of the NCAA tournament.

Also timely due to the recent publication of The Forest: A FABLE OF AMERICA IN THE 1830s (2023) by Alexander Nemerov. which uses Rafinesque as a character, citing as his source, John Jeremiah Sullivan's brilliant essay on Rafinesque (included in PULPHEAD).

Rafinesque was brilliant, noting the mutation of varieties evolving into species, yet also noting that when it came to race, the black and brown people, popularly said to be of other races, were all the same race, the human race. Billiant through he was, he also played the Fool, as when he claimed that his poetry THE WALUM OLUM, came from a translation of Delaware Indian sticks. As John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it, his metaphysics trumped his scientific discipline in that case.

Transylvania was where Cormac McCarthy has Shelby, one of the Glanton gang members, attending college, which might have been factual, though the jury is still out on that.