BELIEVE NO ONE opens with an Oklahoma farmer dragging a cottonwood tree out of one of his ponds. What Oklahomans call a ‘pond’, we Brits would call a sizeable lake, and this theme of familiarity and difference – two
nations divided by a common language – sets the scene for the rest of the novel. Nick Fennimore and Kate Simms are a long way from home.
We travelled to America’s Midwest to research the novel in 2012. I say ‘we’ because the first two A.D. Garrett novels have been written with forensic advice from specialist Prof. Dave Barclay. Right from the off, I knew that the trip was a winner: our hotel was two minutes walk from Tulsa PD and the impressive BOK stadium, yet just five minutes in the other direction, on Route 66, stood a row of two-room shacks. Contrast is good in fiction, and such contrasts – together with the vastness of the landscape – resonate throughout the novel.
Huge as it is, Oklahoma has a population of just 3.8 million. Driving out to the rural town of Tahlequah in Cherokee County through a flat featureless plain dotted with farm ponds, our host, Mike Nance (Detective retd.), told us of student Stephen Adams, missing since 2004. It’s easier to hide a body than to find one in Oklahoma – there are just too many ponds and uncharted wells to search.
I-44 runs for 633 miles from Texas, across Oklahoma, clear to St Louis and the Missouri-Illinois state line. We hoped that the distance, and crossing state lines, would enable our fictional killer to remain at large for a long while – was that feasible?
Not only feasible, but probable, we were told. Oklahoma’s real life I-40 killer confessed to a dozen murders when he was finally caught in 2009, and many other predators trawl the highways of America. Truckers are top of the list of suspects: easy to abduct a victim in one state, murder her in the next and dump her body in a third, while seemingly going about your legitimate business. One detective said, ‘I’d put every one of them on CODIS, I had my way.’ That went into the novel verbatim.
Ten days in we were feeling good: our backwoods setting worked, our serial killer trope fit the bill. But on day 14 St Louis Chief Medical Examiner, Dr Mary Case, demolished our fictional killer’s MO somewhere between the introductions and the handshakes.
It just wouldn’t fly. It took weeks of rethinking, and an illuminating (multi-coloured!) e-discussion with forensic psychologist Dr Caroline Logan to create a new one. But it was more subtle MO, and came out of a deeper and more disturbed psychology, so worth the effort.
All fans of the genre know that a murder mystery should never be just about the murder. It has to be about people: the victims; those they leave behind – and those who seek justice for them. And again and again, it was the people we met in law enforcement who shaped the novel. In Believe No One, mothers and children are abducted, and the children remain missing. So it was a priority to meet consultants from ‘Team Adam’, a non-profit organisation dedicated to finding missing children. The two men we met were proud that Team Adam had reunited every child separated from their families by Hurricane Katrina, but one added sadly that some of those children clung to their foster parents and did not want to go home. That story haunted me, and is reflected in the questionable decision a deputy sheriff makes about a child’s future as the novel draws to a close.
Was it worth travelling halfway around the world when a Google search could have achieved almost as much for almost nothing? Well, the Sunday before we left Oklahoma, I dragged my husband out to take pictures of Route 66. As we crossed the street for one more snapshot, an elderly African American woman broke off sweeping the sagging porch of her modest two-room home to wish us the blessings of the day. You don’t get that on Google.