Thursday , April 25 2024
Edna Buchanan talks about the crime reporting that made her famous and her latest novel.

An Interview With Author Edna Buchanan About Her New Novel, A Dark And Lonely Place

As I say in the interview Edna Buchanan’s incredibly great crime reporting was an inspiration for me as a reporter, and I was known to give a book compilation of her stories to other reporters in attempts to improve their game. If you have not read that collection, with the wonderful title The Corpse Had A Familiar Face, you need to read it to see just how good police journalism can be.

Buchanan covered the police beat for The Miami Herald for 18 years during which she covered 5,000 violent deaths including 3,000 murders. She won the Pullitzer Prize and the George Polk Award for Career Achievement in Journalism.

While her novels are good there’s no substitute for The Corpse stories, sometimes, and this is definitely the case in the Miami she reports on. Fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

That said, her latest novel, A Dark and Lonely Place, is an entertaining yarn, mixing fact and fiction, playing with the idea of history repeating itself.

Buchanan agreed to let me interview her and this is the result. The conversation reminded me of one with another police reporter-turned-novelist named Michael Connelly, who also had a real-life crime compilation.Thanks again to Edna for letting me interview her.

Like many I first came to know you through your crime reporting. I was a police reporter at the time and I would give copies of The Corpse Had A Familiar Face to other reporters partly to inspire them, partly to show just how good police journalism can be. So I hope you are not tired of talking about those days because I’m going to spend the first half of this interview asking about your non-fiction work the second half on your new novel, ok? Do you get tired of talking and writing about those days, do you recall those days with pride or a bit of both?

I realize now, more than ever, how wonderful it was to be a journalist. There is something noble and exciting about venturing out each day to seek the truth. Every day was an adventure. The police beat is all about life, death, and human nature. It has it all: Greed, sex, violence, comedy and tragedy. It’s Shakespeare in the raw. Every day I met Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet or King Lear. On some bad days I met them all. Some threw rocks and bottles, fired guns, or brandished knives. Many were tragic, doomed and dangerous, or on the brink. Sometimes you can reach out.

I have always loved heroes, met so many, learned so much and came to realize that evil is alive and the world is a battleground in the war between good and evil. Some people are born bad and can’t be fixed.

All told, the best, most productive and the most interesting years of my life were those spent as a reporter for The Miami Herald.

What do you miss and what don’t you miss about being a newspaper reporter?

One of the true joys of journalism is that reporters are among the few people left in the world who can be catalysts for change, who can often find the truth and bring about justice in cases where it might never triumph otherwise. Work a story hard, tell it right, and the good readers will never let you down. I miss that instant gratification that came from their calls, letters, reactions and feedback, that quick connection to them through my stories in tomorrow morning’s paper or Sunday’s at the latest. I miss them every day.

I once received a letter from a reader complimenting my lead on a news story. She said it was best she’d ever read in a newspaper. I never forgot her kind words and used that lead again much later, as the opening paragraph of my first novel:  “It was the night of the full moon over Miami. The shooting started early.”

 I miss the excitement of being on the trail of a great story, and also miss the rare, talented, and thoughtful editors who never do anything to your story except make it better. In my entire life I’ve known just three. I don’t miss the others, and always warn the ambitious, young, and surprisingly optimistic journalism students I often address. I give them their three most important rules for success:

Never trust an editor!

Never trust an editor

Never trust an editor!

There has to be some irony to me retyping this part:

Editors can burn your source, sprinkle errors into the copy over which you have labored, then proudly conceive and place a totally inaccurate headline atop your story. They will often delete the first name and title of someone you quote, leaving readers to wonder who the hell was speaking and why you didn’t tell them.

Editors will also drop your carefully written kicker, and neglect to show you the art selected to accompany your story, most often the smiling photo of an upstanding church-going, innocent citizen whose name may, or may not, be vaguely similar to those of the serial sex killer, indicted scoundrel, or child rapist about whom you’ve written.

To turn your story in to your editor and go home is like sending your teenage daughter out on a date with Ted Bundy. Your name is on that story. Your reputation and future ride on it. So stay with it, walk it through, peer over the editor’s shoulder.

I once picked up the morning paper and saw that the spelling of homicide in my story had been changed throughout to homocide!! Ack!!! The culprit also misspelled the word in the headline. Numerous cops, detectives and subscribers were thrilled to razz me about it all day as I covered my beat. Back in the newsroom, I asked who was responsible. A short, smug editor proudly took credit for catching “my mistake.” I told him he was wrong. He insisted he was right. He took Latin in college, he boasted, and therefore knew it HAD to be spelled homo – not homi. He was so sure he couldn’t possibly be wrong that he didn’t bother to check with me or a dictionary before changing it. School doesn’t always make people smart.

Why did you retire from journalism and switch to fiction? Do you ever regret that switch?

Who retired? Not me! I took a one year leave of absence to write a book, then wrote two more books, my first novel and Never Let Them See You Cry, the sequel to the Corpse Had A Familiar Face. By the time I was ready to rejoin the Herald nobody in charge remembered that I worked there. So I wrote some more books instead. The new novel is my 18th book, my 15th novel.

I miss the newsroom every moment, every day of my life, but when I was four I told everyone I was going to write books when I grew up, and fiction was what I had had in mind. I couldn’t read yet, but my mother read to me and I loved stories, was always bursting with excitement, wanting to know what happened next. Stories made me so happy that I knew then that it was what I was meant to do. When my mother went to work, I wandered the neighborhood clutching a book, asking everyone I met, including the postman, to read to me. Nobody had the time, so I had to learn fast. I cut my teeth on newspapers and loved the stories. I read all of Sherlock Holmes and Ellery Queen by the time I was seven, the same year I read Forever Amber. I saved The Readers’ Digest, The Saturday Evening Post (where I first read John D. McDonald) and Esquire magazine (where I first read Norman Mailer.)

I loved candy stores, because they sold newspapers too. I used all my dimes for newspapers instead of candy. I loved them. But I never went to journalism school and never dreamed of being a reporter. In fact, I wondered in awe how the heck reporters ever got all those stories. Especially when I accidentally became involved in one as a teenager. Where did they get all that information?

Then I arrived in Miami and needed a job. In a creative writing class that I took to learn how to write a novel, I met a newsman who invited me to apply to the small Miami Beach paper where he worked. I stumbled into journalism! It was an accident, a lucky accident. How neat to make a living writing news stories while I wrote the great American novel in my spare time, I thought. I was so naïve. It never occurred to me that the whirlwind of daily journalism would leave me no time to read a novel, much less write one.

Do you think your journalism work made you a better fiction writer? How so?

Definitely. I learned so much about people, matured, developed the discipline of multiple daily deadlines, and met talented and brilliant professionals who generously shared their expertise and friendship. I wrote thousands of news stories, a goldmine of experience to draw upon in the future, to fictionalize, shape and build into novels.

How do you feel about being dubbed “the queen of crime” by The Los Angeles Times?

Embarrassed. I’m more comfortable doing the interviewing, not being the subject of interviews and articles. 

The book’s preface says “This is the novel I have yearned to write for half my life.” Can you elaborate on that? Why have you long wanted to write this book?

Dark stories and rumors whispered down generations about the notorious outlaw John Ashley and his sweetheart, Laura, haunted my dreams and stirred my soul from the moment I first heard their names decades ago.

On my first job as a reporter, I learned to frequent the morgues, the one at the Medical Examiner’s Office for corpses and the other for old clippings at the newspapers where I worked. That’s where all the stories were. Life and death, and the first drafts of history.

As a rookie reporter and the Miami Beach Daily Sun, I came across a yellowed old column. The Sun began to publish in the 1930s, when stories about the Ashley Gang, wiped out in the ‘20s, were still relatively fresh.

That long ago columnist had written that Laura, John Ashley’s sweetheart, hanged herself at the gang’s Everglades hideout after John and his gang were killed in a fierce gun battle with the law. How sad, I thought.

But the man’s facts were wrong. I learned through research later that that particular suicide attempt had failed.

And, even later, I learned that there was no gun battle. John, his nephew and two friends, surrendered peacefully to St. Lucie and Palm Beach County deputies, who handcuffed and then shot them all down execution style.

Suspicious deaths in police custody. How shocking. Who’da thought that could happen in Florida?

At the Miami Beach Sun and, later, at the Miami Herald, I pored through more old stories and became hooked on the tale of legendary outlaw John Ashley and his star-crossed love affair with Laura.

They haunted me, but their voices were mere echoes, their faces ghostly shadows from the past. And I was busy, covering crime in modern Miami at a time when if police stopped ten cars at random they found guns in nine of them.

Then late one night, as I looked for something else in the newspaper morgue, I stumbled upon an old photo, a handsome youth, a teenager, with a grin so infectious that I couldn’t help but smile back. How startling to see John Ashley’s face for the first time. The legend was now real.

How strange to see him, nearly 100 years later, from my vantage point on the observation deck of history. He stood at the threshold of manhood, with a fresh haircut, wearing a crisp white tropical suit, and a dark tie, his life stretched out before him like a promise. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined then how broken that promise would be, or that he would soon become the most controversial and notorious character in Florida’s colorful and violent history.

Nothing in his family history hinted at such a future. His father, to whom he was close, had been a lawman himself. A legendary marksman, he taught his son to shoot until John was even better. John was one of nine children, not one had ever had even a minor brush with the law, and then, something happened.

Last year, December, 2011, marked the centennial of the killing that launched the legend.

That fatal bullet ricocheted into prison breaks, bloody battles, and a historic gun fight on the dusty streets of what is now modern, downtown Miami.

I often thought about John and Laura, all the lost lives and broken hearts, as I covered the police beat for the Herald during that perfect storm of events (the Cocaine wars, the Mariel boat lifts and the McDuffie Riots) that led to unprecedented violence. In 1981 Miami-Dade County broke all records and was number in homicide with 637 murders. I covered them all. My editors didn’t want me to. Homicide had become so commonplace that they said to only cover the major murder of the day. I knew what they meant but pretended not to. How do you select the major murder of the day? Every murder is major to the victim. They all wanted to live. And we’re all in trouble when victims become mere numbers, statistics. I thought it vital to get them all, all of their stories, into the newspaper of record, in black and white, on our consciousness forever.

Caught up in that whirlwind of violence that nobody could stop, I had no personal life. On call 24-7, all I remember is going from murder scene to murder scene. It left me numb, shell-shocked, by the time it was over. But I did it; I got them all in the newspaper. All those lost lives and broken hearts.

Then Time magazine reported in a cover story that South Florida was paradise lost, lost to crime and violence.

I knew that was wrong, Miami was only being itself, repeating history, over and over.

The more things change the more they remain the same. Take jail overcrowding, an annual scandal in South Florida. We had the same problem 100 years ago. Miami’s first police chief handled jail overcrowding by leaving the jailhouse doors unlocked and ajar, then crouching outside in the bushes, with a shotgun. Indicted for murder as a result, he was tried by a jury of his peers, acquitted and got his badge back.

We thought carjacking was a new crime when it began to flourish back in the ’80s. But in 1915, at high noon on a bright spring day, John Ashley’s younger brother, Bobby, tried to rescue him from the Dade County jail after he’d been sentenced to hang for a murder he swore he didn’t do – a conviction, by the way, later tossed out by an appellate court. Bobby killed the Dade County jailor in that aborted prison break, then carjacked a bread truck at gunpoint in an attempt to escape. It didn’t work for him. Motor vehicles were relatively new to Miami then and the fleeing youth didn’t know how to drive a truck.

A brave police officer tried to take him alive and in the resulting gun battle, not far from where modern Miami’s police headquarters stands today, that officer, J.R. Riblet, became the first policeman ever shot to death in the line of duty. He went down fighting.  Before he hit the dusty street, he fired three shots and fatally wounded his killer.

Lost lives and broken hearts. The more things change, the more they remain the same. Florida has always been the last stop for sun-seeking drifters and people on the run from trouble.

Scandal, corruption, greedy land grabbers, and politicians who lie to us. We had them then, we have them now. Some recently reelected, others trying to get elected.

The rum runners in fast boats pursued up the Miami River by federal agents 90 years ago as thirsty Miamians cheered them on from shore, evolved into drug smugglers in fast boats being pursued up the Miami River by federal agents.

One hot, violent, night out covering murder in Miami under a tarnished full moon, I wondered what if, John and Laura, or better yet, what if, their fictional descendants, lived here today and were caught up in the same disastrous chain of events that their forebears faced? How would their story end? Are our fates programmed in our genetic memories?  How powerful is the past? Can those of us who carry the outlaw imprint of violence and tragedy in our DNA ever break the cycle? Can we change our own destiny? Or must it always end the same way.           

That’s when i knew i would write this book.  

Another inspiration for it was a condition I’ve wanted to explore for years. It has no name that i know of.  I call it extreme love at first sight. Over the years I’ve met a number of couples, strangers who looked into each other’s eyes with instant, simultaneous recognition and from that moment they never slept apart for the rest of their lives no matter what the consequence, fallout, scandal or grief. In one case they were talented journalists that I knew. She had five small children, he had four, and until that moment, both were happily married to someone else. They met on an assignment in the Bahamas. They’d seen each other at a distance before. Now, working the same story, they met for lunch.

From the moment their eyes met across the table, both said they knew they were meant to be together, forever. And they were. At a huge cost. It was ugly. With nasty divorces and broken hearts. Both lost custody and even visitation with their children. They did marry and were together forever, or until she died decades later.

Another was a working suburban wife and mother in Kendall when a new neighbor, an older, single man moved in down the street. Her husband came home from his excellent job with an advertising agency and found her in the kitchen, stirring soup. She kissed him hello, and said she’d heard that the new neighbor down the street was alone and sick with the flu.

Her husband smiled as he watched her carry the soup down the street. She never came home.  Ever.  As she poured the steaming broth into a bowl in her new neighbor’s kitchen, they gazed into each other’s eyes through the steam, and realized they were destined to be together forever.  And they were. He died in his bed, at home one Saturday morning (in a different neighborhood) twenty years later, while his much younger wife was at the bakery selecting his favorite pastries for breakfast.

They all swore that they knew instantly. The female journalist said they were convinced that they’d been lovers in a former lifetime.  None had regrets, and they all remained together for decades until parted by death. I think the duke and duchess of Windsor may have been another such pair. He was the king, and the winds of war were threatening his country, yet he abandoned his throne, his subjects, and his nation for a relatively unattractive (though extremely well dressed) twice- divorced American woman with whom he lived for the rest of his life — in exile.

Selfish?  Self-absorbed? Or destiny?

When my modern John and Laura meet for the first time, that said preternatural attraction occurs and they are willing, even eager, to risk everything, even their lives, to be together.

This book, half historical and half contemporary, is the most difficult and ambitious project I’ve ever undertaken.

History has always fascinated me. And lately, everybody wants to know about the past.  And that’s unusual, particularly in Miami, a place known for its short memory and shorter fuse. But that’s a good thing, because we all know that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

Everything is cyclical.

Like it says in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun.   Yet we don’t change. And nobody remembers.   

I’ve already mentioned the first Miami police officer shot to death in the line of duty – which takes place once more, in my book.  But what about the first Miami Beach policeman shot to death?

I knew Officer Donald Kramer, a former TV repairman, who pinned on a badge in middle age to fulfill a childhood dream. He laughed a lot, loved the job, and savored every moment in uniform. A marielito known as El Loco shot him to death in broad daylight in a South Beach alley back in the 1980’s. Somber city officials announced that he was the first Miami Beach police officer ever shot to death in the line of duty. I covered the story and quoted them.

Of course, the fastest way to find out something isn’t true is to put it in the newspaper. A 90-year-old Miami Beach pioneer called the next day to tell me that he distinctly remembered a Miami Beach police officer fatally shot in a gun battle during the 1920s. The police chief and the mayor denied it. But it was true. Two thugs stole a brand new 1928 car from a Fort Lauderdale dealership. Drove it right through the show room’s plate glass windows and down to Miami Beach where brave young officer David Bearden tried to stop them. They opened fire and he shot back in a blazing predawn gun battle on March 19, 1928. Like Officer Riblet 13 years earlier, the Miami Beach officer shot his killers, one fatally, after he, himself, was shot near the heart. The young officer was gravely injured. No bulletproof vests then. He painfully crawled to a police alarm box blocks away. No handheld, or lapel radios then.    

Too weak to stand, he couldn’t reach the box to call for help, and lay helpless and bleeding at the base of the pole until a hotel employee on his way to work discovered him at dawn and sounded the alarm. But it was too late.  Miami Beach city officials passed flowery resolutions lauding the gallant officer’s courage. They praised his supreme sacrifice and swore that the city would never forget his unselfish devotion.  Then, they did.             

They buried Bearden in his tiny Alabama hometown. Half a century later, the Beardens who still lived there did not remember the fallen hero. But i found him! Still alive in one heart. I found Ora Carter Davis, his childhood sweetheart, now a widow in her 80’s.  They had courted, but were first cousins.  Marriage was forbidden. So at age 15, she married another man. And David Bearden, her heartbroken, would-be suitor went to Miami Beach and his destiny. He was 24.

Miami Beach city officials, who remember nothing about the past, were unhappy when i pointed out their mistake, that Kramer was not their first fallen officer. But today, the memorial plaque in the lobby at police headquarters now includes the name of Officer David Bearden. And that’s a good thing. I have always had the crazy idea that no one is ever really dead as long as someone alive remembers, and speaks their name. John and Laura, Joe, and Bobby Ashley, Officers  J.R. Riblet, David Bearden, and Donald Kramer and all the other heroes. Lives lost, hearts broken. 

I have to admit I had never heard of John Ashley before so at first, before googling and finding he even had a Wikipedia profile I was going to ask if he was based on a real person. Now I’ll ask instead this two-parter: How much, in writing this novel, did you embellish his life or did you try to stay to the facts about him as much as possible?  

I carefully stuck to the historic facts I could confirm through research.   Those that could not be, I recreated based on who those real people were and the time in which they lived.  For example, every historic account of the relationship between John Ashley and his sweetheart, Laura, stated that it was unknown where, when, or how they met.  One writer speculated that it was most likely during probation, while running moonshine, or operating stills.  But John was already in his 20s then, and all accounts agreed that Laura was the only woman ever in his life and that he remained devoted to her forever.  I suspect they met far earlier. So I had them meet as children, then teenage sweethearts, who were parted when his family moved from Florida’s west coast to the state’s southeast coast and later reunited. That made more sense, given their long-time, exclusive relationship, and explained Laura’s early marriage to another man whom she left when john returned to find her.

Also were you writing this partly to let more people know his story?

Yes, I’m so glad you picked up on that.  Florida, the last frontier at the bottom of the map, was so remote that it was largely ignored by the main stream media back then due to the distance and the delay in communications. Everyone, everywhere, knows all about Bonnie and Clyde who made news ten years after the violent deaths of John Ashley and his gang.  Bonnie and Clyde had a relatively brief relationship before it was ended by the law. Yet, little is known nationally about John and Laura whose story is far more riveting, breathtaking, and poignant. They spent more than a decade on the run, escaping from city, state, and federal lawmen, with even the British navy in pursuit after the Brits declared John an international pirate. What a story!                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  It’s the same with General George Custer. Every schoolchild knows about him, while few have heard of Major Francis Langhorne Dade who, at Christmas time 1835, led his men into an ambush in Florida’s Indian country.  Major Dade and his men, 103 soldiers, were slaughtered and scalped. Their deaths set off the second Seminole War which raged for seven bloody years, the most expensive in lives and money of all our Indian wars.  The Dade Massacre took place four years before the birth of George Custer.  

This book is a departure from your usual fiction series featuring Britt Montero as a police reporter. Has that series been a good way to continue in a way as a police reporter albeit in fictionalized situations?    

Absolutely. Everything that ever happened to Britt could have really happened, or did.  It’s tough to write fiction in Miami where truth is stranger.

It’s so good to be working with her again. She’s been whispering in my ear for some time now, wanting her story told.  And I did leave her in a rather  awkward and precarious situation at the end of her last book,  Love Kills.

Was it harder writing this book which, I assume, is more of a stretch, than the Britt series?

It took twice as long because of all the research and the fact that A Dark And Lonely Place is  actually two stories, as two sets of characters experience similar events, in the same place, a hundred years apart.      

You ask in the preface: “Is it possible to change our own destiny? Can those of us with the outlaw imprint of violence and tragedy in our DNA break the cycle? Or is our fate indelibly programmed in our genes?” Was this a book a way to sort of explore the ideas of fate and destiny? Did you reach some conclusions on those topics on how much of a pull and control they have on our lives?

I have always believed that knowledge is power and that those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Ii think that the way the story of the contemporary John and Laura plays out is very revealing. They led the way and I followed.  At the start, and even well into the book, I wasn’t sure where it would end.                     

Are you going back to the Britt series after this book or maybe another one about Michael Venturi?

See above,  I’d love to  do another book with Venturi.  I love those sexy characters and their adventures in Legally Dead.   I’ve already sketched  out the sequel’s plot. But Britt  comes next. I’ve left her hanging too long since the climax of Love Kills.

You ask in the preface: “Is it possible to change our own destiny? Can those of us with the outlaw imprint of violence and tragedy in our DNA break the cycle? Or is our fate indelibly programmed in our genes?” Was this a book a way to sort of explore the ideas of fate and destiny? Did you reach some conclusions on those topics on how much of a pull and control they have on our lives?

I have always believed that knowledge is power and that those of us who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. Ii think that the way the story of the contemporary John and Laura plays out is very revealing. They led the way and I followed.  At the start, and even well into the book, I wasn’t sure where it would end.                     

Are you going back to the Britt series after this book or maybe another one about Marshall Michael Venturi, a former U.S. marshall?

See above, I’d love to do another book with Venturi.  I love those sexy characters and their adventures in Legally Dead.   I’ve already sketched out the sequel’s plot. But Britt comes next. I’ve left her hanging too long since the climax of Love Kills.

Which do you prefer – writing a series or a stand-alone book?

I love both

Or put another way what are the advantages and disadvantages of series vs. stand-alone novels?

The series characters are old friends, I am glad to spend time with again. They constantly amaze me with their strength, humor, and daring and in the ways they grow, change, and develop. But new voices grow louder, clamoring to tell their stories.  It is like playing God, creating new people who emerge fully developed and full of surprises, demanding attention and trying to take over a book. How cool is that?

What question do you wish you would get asked more often? Here’s your chance to ask and answer it?   

Question: Would you like your lotto winnings in a lump sum or in annual payments?    
Answer:  the lump sum, please now.

 Thanks for the interview   

You are welcome.


Click to visit Edna Buchanan’s website
Books are available at


About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been working in mental health for the last ten years. He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.

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