Elizabeth Little. Little is the author of Dear Daughter, winner of the Strand Magazine Critics Award and nominee for Macavity and Barry Best First Novel. She lives in Los Angeles with her family (and definitely ended up getting that upgraded security system).
It was ten minutes to dinner, and I was reading about Jeffrey Dahmer.
It had started out so innocently. My son and I had been watching cartoons while my husband cooked. I can’t remember now what the show was—something about monkeys? Undersea explorers? Time-traveling Canadians? But whatever it was, I’d seen it a million times before, and it didn’t take long for my mind to wander to other matters.
Now, if I were writing for a different audience, I might pretend that this was an exception rather than a rule, that usually I would’ve been thinking about baseball or what I wanted for dessert because I’m totally a normal person who thinks about normal-person things wait, no, don’t back away! But those of us in the mystery community know how it really is. Ghoulish thoughts and diversions are an avocational hazard, the result of years and years of immersing ourselves in the darker sides of human nature and letting our imaginations run free. Too free, maybe.
It’s something I’ve been living with for a long time. When I was four years old, a man was murdered in the house next door. Understandably, I suppose, no one would tell me what exactly had happened. I remember that my mom took me by the hand that morning and led me down to the sidewalk, where the cops found a roundabout way to ask if I’d seen anything weird. Then they let me run the siren as a reward. The murder was never mentioned to me again.
This was a mistake. I know now that it was a fairly straightforward crime of passion, not a situation that would have put me at risk, but in the absence of hard fact, my little imagination spiraled into grim speculation. Some nights I decided the killer was a man, others a monster. He used a gun, a knife, his teeth. He climbed in through a window. He crawled up the stairs. And—soon—he was coming for me.
This sounds terrifying and traumatic now that I write it all out, but I don’t remember it that way. Yes, I was scared. But I was also exhilarated. Honestly, I look back on this period as a kind of apprenticeship, because even though I was barely literate, I was nevertheless anticipating what we mystery writers and readers do every day: I was putting myself in the head of a killer, thinking through motive, means, and opportunity, climbing through that window. Crawling up those stairs. And then, inevitably, settling not on the most plausible scenario, but rather on the best story. I learned that fear is a compulsive—and nigh irresistible—narrative force.
It’s no coincidence that I picked up my first Nancy Drew not long after.
I’ve been an avid reader of mystery and true crime ever since, feeding my fear like it’s a second stomach I have to fill. And, so, occasionally I find myself, say, browsing Murderpedia as children’s programming plays cheerfully in the background, idly absorbing the gruesome details of serial murders and wondering how much it would cost to upgrade our security system.
I was reading about muriatic acid—don’t Google if you don’t want to know—when my husband reached across the counter and nudged my elbow.
“How do you want your steak?” he asked.
I remember looking up at my husband, blinking, and making one hell of a face.
God bless him, he read the signs in a second.
“How about I make a salad instead?”
Elizabeth Little’s DEAR DAUGHTER (Penguin Books) explores how pathological and dangerous a mother and daughter’s relationship can become.
Ten years ago, Janie Jenkins, a sly and stunning celebutante at the height of her fame, was convicted of murdering her mother, even though she has no memory of that fateful night. Now, released on a technicality into a world utterly convinced of her guilt, Janie chops off her trademark hair and goes undercover. She follows her one lead to a small town in South Dakota, where she hopes she will find the truth about what really happened—even if that means confirming once and for all that she really is a killer.
With the help of some new friends (and the town’s wary police chief), Janie follows a series of clues and pieces together the surprising picture of her mother’s past that forces her to consider the possibility that her mother wasn’t the perfect society philanthropist everyone believed her to be. On the run from the press, the police, and maybe even a murderer, Janie must choose between the anonymity she craves, and the truth she so desperately needs.
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