We welcome R. Jean Reid (Jean Redmann) to Midnight Ink's blog today! Jean delves into setting and why she wrote a series set in Mississippi. The second in her gripping Nell McGraw Investigation series, Perdition, was just released yesterday.
I grew up in a small town on the Mississippi Gulf coast, Ocean Springs. It’s been decades since I lived there, but the past, our memories, the slant of the light, seeing a world new through a growing child’s eyes; keep it tightly in memory. This town and my growing up there had stories to tell. These stories became the Nell McGraw series.
There is no real Pelican Bay and I’ve stretched the Mississippi coast from 3 counties to 4 to add my fictional one. The city is loosely—very loosely—based on Ocean Springs, but mainly because it’s easier to pull something from memory (and a map) than to create it out of whole cloth. There is no town square, so please don’t ask where it is. (Ocean Springs is a lovely, sleepy town, miles of natural beaches and worth a trip if you’re in the area. But missing an expanse of green at its heart.)
The first story I wanted to tell, in Roots of Murder, was to dig back into the hidden—or forgotten—struggles of the civil rights era. When I was a child, those lovely beaches were segregated. As difficult as it is, I wanted to take a hard look at that past, at least as much as a mystery, a fictional world, could do. How do those long ago sins still resonate? The mystery genre, at its heart, is a search for justice. Too often in real life we can’t find it; truth hidden and smudged under everyone’s version of it. But the mystery novel can give it to us.
For this kind of story, the only possible setting seemed to be one based on my childhood home, a small town with secrets.
In my research for the book, I stumbled over a memoir titled Blood, Ballots and Beaches, by Dr. Gilbert Mason, Sr., an African-American doctor. It was the story of the desegregation of the beaches in Biloxi, Mississippi, a struggle overshadowed by the more bloody violence going on in other parts of the state.
My parents are long gone. I can’t ask them what it was like, even if I dared (would I find answers I didn’t want to find?) I only had small clues, some only later revealing themselves. In 8th grade, I was given an assignment to ask my parents to name someone they admired, a historical figure. My mother chose Eleanor Roosevelt. Only later, did I realize what a major statement that was for Mississippi in the late sixties. (The state was still fighting Brown v. Education, finally losing at the Supreme Court in 1969.) Eleanor Roosevelt, who resigned from the Daughters of the American Revolution, when it refused to let the African-American singer Marianne Anderson perform in its hall. Who climbed into a bi-plane with one of the Tuskegee Airmen to show her utter confidence that they could fly as well as any white pilot.
In Dr. Mason’s book, he only named those who helped support him in his struggle. I saw the name of my pediatrician, my mother’s cancer doctor, others that were part of my parent’s social circle.
A small kindness, to find that perhaps in that flawed time with its all too flawed men, my parents, had at least been part of those who were willing to hope for a better world. They weren’t fighters for civil rights, not on the front lines. Even in my sealed childhood world, I would have remembered that. I can’t claim any great heroism from my family—only that perhaps they weren’t as flawed—shading into evil—as many in that time and place.
And I had to write a story that helps, in a very, very small way, to atone for the sunny days at the beach that were denied to others. To remind us that, as Faulkner says, ‘The past is never gone; it’s isn’t even past.”
That was the genesis of Nell McGraw and Pelican Bay. (Please note, it’s a large small town and part of the well populated Gulf Coast area, keeping the murder rate well below that of Cabot Cove.)
In Perdition, the second Nell McGraw, I also wanted to draw on secrets, the assumptions we make about others, especially when we think we know them.
Mississippi, and my memories, still have stories to tell.
A town and a mother are forced to confront their worst fears in this hair-raising suspense novel from the author of Roots of Murder.
Newly widowed mother Nell McGraw struggles with her outsider status as she runs the newspaper founded by her husband’s grandfather. But a paper can’t turn away from the stories that others ignore, like the body of a child found in the Gulf. At first it seems tragic, a child lost because of carelessness.
Disgusted by the turf war between the sheriff and the police chief, Nell barely manages to keep her journalistic distance . . . until the killer contacts her, telling her that her children could be next. Now Nell must match wits with a psychopath who taunts her, daring her and the police to catch him before he can kill again.
R. Jean Reid lives and works in New Orleans. She grew up on the Mississippi Gulf coast. As J.M. Redmann, she is the author of multi-Lambda Award-winning Micky Knight Mystery series, including The Intersection of Law and Desire, Death of a Dying Man and Ill Will. Her day job is in public health as the director of prevention at NO/AIDS Task Force. You can visit her at www.RJeanReid.com.