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"Perhaps our fascination with serial killers comes from seeing otherness in our own form."

An Interview With Author Jan Burke About Her Latest Irene Kelly Mystery, Disturbance

Jan Burke has written another thriller, one so good that it was messing about my schedule. I should explain that I think there’s a few different type of readers:

1)   There are those you always hear about who talk about reading a whole book in one night. I’ve always wondered about these folks – do they not have a job to go to the next day, or a spouse in bed?

2)   There are those like me who plan ahead on where they will stop at, say the end of a passage or, more often, the end of a chapter

3)   There are those who just stop wherever they’re at because something happens, be it a phone call or falling asleep.

Well, first let me warn the third group of people that Disturbance is not a book you’re going to fall asleep to – the excitement is too much – and if you do fall asleep you’re going to have nightmares. Better follow my lead and have the book you read be something non-fiction and non-scary – hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be reading that new Area 51 book before bed – it might give me alien nightmares, but I could do worse.

But I digress.

Burke is the type of author who ends each chapter with something so important it’s almost impossible to not read on… to the next chapter… then the next. So I’d say, okay, I’ll read until noon, right when this chapter ends… next thing I know it’s 1 pm and I say, “dang you, Jan Burke!” (That’s one of them backhanded compliment).

But seriously Disturbance continues to demonstrate what makes her good – some great plot twists, most of which I can’t go into without providing spoilers so let’s suffice to say that when you think you know what’s about to happen chances are good you are completely wrong.

How would you summarize what this new book is about?

The book is about reinventing oneself. 

Oh — you mean a plot summary!

Irene Kelly is worried about the future of the newspaper she works for when she hears news that gives her another set of anxieties — Nick Parrish, the serial killer she encountered in Bones, has recovered from the injuries that left him temporarily paralyzed.  Parrish is still imprisoned, but his followers, bloggers calling themselves The Moths, are threatening her with revenge on his behalf.  Some are obvious cranks, but when a woman’s frozen body, painted with moths, is left near Irene’s home, it’s clear to her that at least a few of The Moths are more deeply involved with Parrish.  The police doubt the connection — until Parrish escapes.

This book is a sequel to Bones (no relation to the television show, which it predates.) Is it important for readers to read that book first?

Nothing in the plot of Disturbance depends upon things learned by reading Bones, and I did my best to limit spoilers to Bones in this new book.  That said, if you’re someone who likes to read a series in order, you might want to read Bones first.  You can find the sequence of the other books on my website.  I think some readers will enjoy Disturbance more if they have read Bones, but you certainly won’t be lost if you start with Disturbance — the plot is independent of Bones.       

You have returned with this book to your Irene Kelly series. What are the advantages of writing a series as opposed to stand-alone books?

Writing a series book at this point, almost a dozen books in, means I’m spending time in the company of at least some characters I know well.  I trust them to take me through the story.  I like Irene, and have a good sense of who she is, and who Frank, Pete, Rachel, Ben, Ethan, Lydia, and others are.  That said, they still surprise me.  Frequently.

For me, the world of Las Piernas is well-established in my mind.  I know the newsroom of the Express.  Again, though, strangers enter the picture and I end up turning down a street I haven’t previously explored.

A stand-alone allows me to write a book with a protagonist who is different, with a different background and skills.  I can also cross into a world or town she doesn’t inhabit.  I like writing both kinds of books.

This book has a serial killer character. Why do you think the public is so fascinated with serial killers, in books, television, etc?

They are our Grendels.  Except Grendel was more human.

Slightly more seriously — perhaps our fascination comes from seeing otherness in our own form, or perhaps that which repels, attracts.  We have difficulty understanding them, we are afraid of them, and (most of all, I think) we want to see them defeated. 

I know you have done research for the law enforcement parts of your books but I was interested in your comments and commentary regarding the journalism field. Did you do research on that part too?

Thanks to good friends who are reporters and editors and publishers, most especially those (past and present!) at the Long Beach Press-Telegram, and some friends at radio stations and in television news, I have been allowed to sit in newsrooms and talk to reporters at length about their work. 

I’ve also read a lot about the field, and took a course or two in college.  Until his death, I was able to call upon an uncle I much admired, Robert Flynn, who is in Indiana’s Journalism Hall of Fame.  Uncle Bob worked for the Evansville Courier & Press for decades, and was a great source for information on old school journalism.

A friend who has been working for newspapers since we were students in the 1970s has always been willing to take the time to answer my questions.

For Disturbance, I was helped by Kitty Felde, who is a special correspondent for NPR station KPPC — I’ve always greatly admired her work.

Did you have a background as a journalist before writing novels? I’m biased on this question as a former journalist myself.

I am not a journalist.  I have (obviously) a real interest in journalism, but my work for newspapers and magazines has been limited to occasional freelance work.  

You don’t have to look far to see that many of our genre’s finest writers are former reporters.  Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman, Jon King, Mary Kay Andrews, and Bruce da Silva are just a few who come quickly to mind. 

I will also point out that Sara Partesky, Sharan Newman, and I majored in history.  Make of that what you will.

I have been fascinated by newspapers since childhood.  I am a firm believer in “write what you *want* to know.”  Among other benefits, my training in history gave me an excellent background in how to do research.

Can you talk about the Moths, the web site in the book of groupies for a serial killer? Do such sites really exist? Did you research them?

Let’s go for the easy example first — Charles Manson.  Three samples:

http://www.charlesmansonfanclub.com

http://rcjustice.tripod.com/charlie.html (Includes “dos and don’ts” for what to say in a letter to Manson.” The people who run the prisons are jealous of the positive support which Manson gets from his friends and will do anything to discourage it, and in doing so, try to make Manson feel like he has no friends.)

http://www.mansondirect.com/updates.html  Which has such sympathetic notes as “Anyone wishing to add funds to Charlie’s prison account can check the CDC website for details on how to do that.”

Manson gets hundreds of thousands of letters in prison.  One source claims he has received more mail than any other prisoner in U.S.  I don’t know of any way of verifying that, but Manson is far from being the only notorious killer who gets fan mail.  

There are studies on women who propose marriage to men who are in prison for life and other bad boys, but it addition to those attachments, there are definitely fans of both sexes for anyone with notoriety.

I last interviewed you for the book, The Messenger  – what’s changed since then and what’s the same? I ask because publishing has been going through some major changes.

I’ll say what I’ve said in my advice to new writers on my site:

What writers do is based not on publishing formats or changes in an industry.  Publishing has been changing from the time the first book came into being.  We tell stories.  We were around before Gutenberg.  What you are a part of when you tell a story is something so integral to who we are as a species, there’s no need to worry yourself to halt when thinking about anything smaller.

What do you think about the explosion of e-books?

It is exciting to me when people are buying books.  The format they buy them in doesn’t need to cause hysteria.  I enjoy reading books in the ebook format, and still appreciate the experience of reading a bound book.  

Some dynamics are changing.  We shall see what comes of that.  I have stories to tell.  If new avenues are made available for getting those stories into the hands of readers, so much the better — I’m open to exploring those avenues.  At the same time, I think it is a mistake to adopt the belief that publishers only provide printing, binding, and distribution. 

The Internet has changed our lives in thousands of ways.  Why should we pretend that it won’t continue to change the way we find and read books?

How is your work going with the Crime Lab Project? Is it used to help innocent people stay out of jail or get exonerated? Do you have thoughts about California having to release prisoners due to overcrowding? Are you also still involved with the California Forensic Science Institute board?

We just redesigned the website for the CLP.  We’re on Twitter now, too, so people who want to know more about forensic science and its needs can visit our site and follow us at @crimelabproject on Twitter.

Forensic science affects so many areas of our lives.  We know our support of public forensic science continues to make a difference — so yes, helping to exonerate and protect the innocent, which is vital to being able to maintain justice.  But forensic science also helps to identify the truly guilty, to make communities safer, to make workplaces safer; it aids in homeland security, disaster response, missing persons cases, public health, and much more. 

As for California’s release of prisoners, this is a complicated matter that I’ll have to talk about in simplified terms.  Simply put, then:

California has needed to invest in building new prisons for many decades.  This is not a surprise problem.  I don’t know how people expect to deal with such problems without paying for them.  No free lunch.  No free corrections system. 

Right now the system is a nightmare.  Housing people at four times the occupancy level the institutions were intended to hold is not a solution.  That doesn’t work for anyone.

There has been plenty of warning on this one.  We need to face the problem.

The CFSI is a wonderful organization. I should clarify that I am on an honorary board there.   They do so much good — training, scholarships, research support and more — and I hope they will serve as a model for other local organizations.

I would like to end with what I call my bonus question – what question do you hope you will be asked about this book that you have not been asked so far?

Oddly enough, I’m hoping someone will ask me what I’ve learned about serial killers between the time I wrote Bones and the time when I researched Disturbance. Has anything changed?

The answer could be a very long one, so I’ll just give you a few of the broad strokes.

Yes, much has changed! New research about violence and genetics, as well as advances in neuroscience, each have implications that I expect to continue to make an impact on our understanding of serial killers, and are already raising questions about how we will deal with ethics of “preemptive” identification, as well as culpability issues.

I’m going to be blogging about some of this soon, so I won’t take up a lot of room here with a detailed discussion, but there are indications that there may be a genetic factor that makes some individuals more prone to violence. Research on this topic is ongoing, and I know of no one who would say genetics are the sole determining factor in violent behavior, but there is evidence that the MAO-A gene, sometimes called the “warrior gene,” may increase the likelihood that an individual will have difficulty with impulse control and aggression, especially for those who grow up in adverse environments.

While our knowledge of the influence of genes on behavior continues to expand, neuroscience, another scientific field that will doubtless have an impact on our criminal justice system, has been experiencing a boom in research in recent years. Until relatively recently, you could not easily observe activity in a living brain. The invention of the fMRI has changed that. As with the genetic relationship to violence, we still have a lot to learn, but some new studies are showing that the brains of the violent psychopath may function quite differently from the brains of others.

Since writing Bones, I’ve learned much more about the real challenges and problems facing public forensic science in the U.S. — that, in part, led to founding the Crime Lab Project. In recent years, I’ve become convinced that many of the statistics I’ve seen about serial killers (and homicides in general) are highly questionable, primarily because of five problems: 1) the state of death investigation, 2) the lack of data on medical serial killers, 3) evidence testing backlogs, 4) failure to investigate missing persons cases, and 5) failure to study patterns of homicides.

The state of medico-legal death investigation in U.S. is appalling. Most death investigation is being carried out in grossly underfunded coroners offices by people who are not adequately trained. Medical examiners are very often doctors who don’t have training in forensic pathology. (If doctors at all — in Wisconsin, people with no medical training whatsoever may be appointed as medical examiners.) Many coroners have no forensic science or medical training and have never taken more than a 20-hour course, if even that much training was required in their jurisdiction. I invite your readers to learn more by taking the “Death Quiz” on the CLP website and by looking at the Frontline/NPR/Pro Publica report “Post Mortem.”

One result of the above is that death certificates are often inaccurate and other data provided by these offices in the U.S. are not going to give us a reliable picture of why people are dying. (The autopsy rate in the U.S., for example is extremely low, and for deaths of people over the age of 50, lower still.) Few even have X-ray machinery, so you can imagine how inadequate some examinations of the dead may be. So not only do we fail to recognize what diseases are really killing us, we undoubtedly misidentify some homicides as accidents or “natural” deaths.

The other result of unfunded and inadequately staffed coroners and medical examiners offices is that thousands of unidentified remains have been brought into these offices, and many stay unidentified. Often, no policies exist to collect or keep key records and materials (fingerprints, DNA, X-rays), ultimately making it impossible to resolve missing persons cases.

The second problem is that much more needs to be done to identify and apprehend medical serial killers. They may be among the most prolific serial killers in the world. Harold Shipman, a British doctor, is thought to be responsible for 150 or more murders. Here in the U.S., Beatrice Yorker, Kenneth Kizer, and others have published studies about the problem of medical serial killers in our hospitals, but much more must be done in response to their findings.

The third problem is DNA testing and other evidence backlogs. As the DNA and fingerprint databases build, more connections between crimes may be made. But whenever evidence sits untested, we increase the risk of killers remaining at large.

Fourth, for many decades, missing persons cases, particularly those of missing adults, have not been given the attention they should have received. That’s changing, but we still need to do more to ensure that local offices are making better efforts to participate in NamUS and other databases. If we don’t know the fate of hundreds of thousands of individuals, we can hardly say our statistics about violent deaths are accurate.

Fifth, recent investigations by the Scripps-Howard News Service show that much more needs to be done to encourage studies of patterns of killings, patterns which law enforcement entities may have failed to link. To read more about that: and to help out.

Given these five problems, I think it’s likely that the number of homicide cases, especially serial homicide cases, is underestimated. I don’t care so much about the numbers per se — what this means in terms of identification apprehension of killers, and justice for victims and their families, is a much greater concern.

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 doing special education work for about five 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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