Joe was still a high school teenager when the quiet town where he lived was rocked after the body of a missing schoolgirl was discovered in a pond near the railway tracks. She had been raped and strangled to death.
The killer later turned out to be an intimate friend of Joe’s family.
“The whole town was in shock,” he said. “But I was more deeply affected than most. The young killer was my brother’s best friend. I’d often laughed and joked with him around the Sunday dinner table and had gone out shooting rifles with him.
“One day soon after the murder, while police were still hunting for clues, this good pal passed me in his truck when I was on the way back from a run along the same road where the body had been found. He gave me an odd look, as though he was worried about where I’d been.
“Something about that look made me think for a moment that he might be the killer of that little girl. But … c’mon … he was a friend. I dismissed the thought and didn’t tell anyone about the encounter. Later, of course, I realized it had been a look of guilt. Our instincts are often more in tune with the world than we give them credit for, but when the instinct suggests something frightening, we often allow ourselves to push it aside.
“I’d have been glad to see the killer hanged … until he turned out to be my friend. Then, I just felt sick. If he hadn’t confessed, I would have sworn they had the wrong guy. Why? Simply because I knew him, and we often choose sides based on association rather than on the facts of the situation.
“The horrible knowledge that someone we trust completely can be so secretly dark inside scarred me. I could never shake the dreadful feeling that people – even those I knew well – might conceal something awful and dark in their hearts.
“But writing The Black Garden served as a catharsis for me – a kind of exorcism of a haunting. Using what I learned about murder, murderers and the difference their crime makes to those around them as a backdrop to the main story was therapeutic. I projected all my fears – how little we actually know even our closest friends – onto characters in my book. It helped me work through the inner conflicts that had dogged me since youth.”
The Black Garden – released this month by Europe-based publishers BeWrite Books – is set in a small town in Vermont, far from where the real life murder took place in Evanston, Wyoming. And it is also set in the fifties, long before the actual murder took place in 1979.
A few years after the murder, Joe – one of a family of eight brothers and sisters – left Wyoming and received his BA in English from Utah State University. He began his career as a technical writer for Thiokol, the manufacturer of space shuttle rocket boosters. He later taught English in Honolulu, Hawaii and Berkeley, California. He currently lives in Studio City, California, and works as a graphic designer.
Joe always had an interest in the arts and attended college on a fine arts scholarship, yet spent much of his time playing the guitar, writing songs and performing with a band. He did a lot of short story writing in high school, but didn’t get serious about it until 1994, while teaching English in Hawaii.
“This was when I wrote my first novel, and I’ve been writing consistently ever since,” he said. “Five novels in fifteen years; three are out on audio cassette, two have been self-published, but The Black Garden is the first so far to have hit the spot with a traditional publisher and been released internationally.
The Black Garden is set in a small town in Vermont. For years, the residents of Winter Haven have speculated about George O’Brien’s misdeeds; however, during the summer of 1958, when Mitchell Sanders arrives to help the O’Briens renovate their home, he discovers that not all of their skeletons are in the closet where they belong.
Joe said: “Since the story is set in 1958, I had to do a lot of research about the era to make the setting authentic. I wanted to make sure the dialog didn’t contain slang or technical terms that didn’t exist at the time. I also needed to know how the police investigated a crime prior to the advent of DNA testing. Fortunately, one of my older brothers works in law enforcement, and I was able to pick his brain on procedures and protocol.
“Most of my stories fall within the gothic suspense category. The Black Garden, though, is more of a drama/mystery. With its rural setting and dark theme, it still fits in the American Gothic slot, but without the supernatural elements often associated with the genre.
“Murder is a small part of The Black Garden; but the theme of judgment runs through the story. Who’s right, the Hatfields or McCoys? Depends if you’re a Hatfield or a McCoy. I hope the novel gives readers a different perspective on events, and entertains them at the same time.
“My protagonist is Mitchell Sanders, the outsider who moves to the small town of Winter Haven for a summer job. He doesn’t care about his employers or the community. He’s a coward who has run away from his problems in Boston and then finds himself entrenched in even bigger problems. He’s not comfortable speaking his mind while in the company of people he knows will disagree with him. Yet as the conflict mounts, he’s forced to take a stand and to grow as a person.”
“I chose Vermont for the setting,” Joe said, “mainly because when I visited there I was taken by its beauty and felt it would make a great backdrop for the story. The town of Winter Haven is fictitious; however, I drew a lot on my own hometown of Evanston, Wyoming, when describing the layout.”
The Black Garden is published by BeWrite Books (www.bewrite.net)
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BeWrite Books, based in the UK but with international reach, a global author pool, and full-time professional editorial and technical staff also in Germany, France, Canada, USA, and Australia, was founded in March 2002.