Two weeks after I graduated from college, I got in a car that was almost as old as I was and drove from Texas to Savannah, Georgia, to work as a trainee reporter for the local newspaper. I was twenty-one years old. The journey took two days. At the time, it was the furthest I’d ever been from home. While I was on the road, the paper’s crime reporter handed in his resignation. When I walked through the door of the Savannah Morning News on a hot Tuesday afternoon, the city editor shook my hand and informed me that I was the new crime reporter. “You can handle it,” he said. “Can’t you?”
Two days later, I stood on a muddy riverbank clutching a notebook and trying not to vomit as police divers pulled a decaying corpse out of the Savannah River with a hook.
This was the beginning of nearly a decade of working as a crime reporter. I would love to tell you I know how many murders I covered, but I lost track as the miles and the bodies racked up. I clearly recall the emotions of it—the excitement and the fear, and the human cost I saw, night after night. I was there on the worst day of so many people’s lives, clutching a slim, reporters’ notebook and asking them to tell me what happened.
For years, I resisted any suggestion that I should set a novel in that world. Everyone who knows me well has, at some point or another, told me I should write about crime reporting. On some level, I knew they were right. Still, I hesitated.
I have complicated feelings about that time. Crime reporting is not an easy job. It consumed my life for many years. I lived and breathed it. By necessity, the work happens at night, so I became nocturnal. Those hours are antisocial by nature and very soon I found that the only people I talked to with any frequency were cops and paramedics. They were the only others who really got what it was like to work twelve-hour shifts, night after night. To work in a job that is literally and figuratively as dark as it gets. One that is dangerous and gritty and heartbreaking. And that I nonetheless loved.
If I ever wrote about that world, I wanted to do it justice. And I wasn’t sure for quite some time that I was ready to do that. To take myself back to that place. To remember what it was like to be so young and so vulnerable, documenting death every night for a salary only slightly above minimum wage.
Then, two years ago, I woke up with an idea of a crime reporter with a ten-year-old Camaro, covering a murder that looked strikingly familiar. By the end of the day, I’d sketched out the plot for a novel, The Echo Killing. By the end of the week I had a full synopsis.
It turns out I was finally ready.
Before I started writing, though, I first searched through old photos for the first time in years. Digging out dusty albums. Trying to recall as much of my crime reporting days as I could. Not the actual crimes—but the feel of it. The energy and fear.
I became a crime reporter because I wanted to be Christiane Amanpour and this was the first rung on the ladder. I’d romanticized the universe of journalism into something untouchable and glamorous. And powerful. Which meant a lot to the kid of a single mother, who grew up flat broke. I’d clawed my way onto that ladder and, by god, I was taking that opportunity. But the job would prove to be much dirtier than I’d anticipated. Much harder. And it exacted more of a toll than I could ever have imagined when I first got into that car in Texas and headed east.
And yet, I can barely remember the bad days now. It’s a quirk of human nature that our memories cling to the most exciting parts of the past. My strongest memory of being a crime reporter is the dizzying adrenaline rush that started when my police scanner leapt into life with the dispatcher calling all available units to a shooting in the eleven hundred block of some dark and lonely street. Then the rush out into the humid night with my car keys clutched in one hand, a notepad in the other. And the race across town behind patrol cars with their blue lights swirling. Pulling up at the crime scene and running to get close to the action—making myself small in the dark so no one would think to tell me to get back behind the line. Trying not to get blood on my shoes because it’s so hard to get it off again later.My strongest memory of being a crime reporter is the dizzying adrenaline rush that started when my police scanner leapt into life with the dispatcher calling all available units to a shooting in the eleven hundred block of some dark and lonely street.
In my memories this is exhilarating. Deadlines are exquisite pressure on this job. Every night is a constant race to get to the scene of the crime, gather all the information from victims, witnesses and police, then rushing back to the paper to write the story before midnight. After midnight the costs of running the presses skyrocket. Few newspapers could afford it then and none can afford it now. Being late for that last deadline of day more than once is enough to cost you your job. I distinctly remember a traffic cop trying to pull me over one night because I was speeding on my way back to the newsroom. I refused to stop. I don’t know what got into me. I think I was exhausted. Perhaps, delirious. The officer pulled alongside me on his motorcycle and I rolled down my window and shouted, “Follow me to the paper and arrest me there because if I stop for you to write me a ticket right now I’ll get fired.” I guess he admired my chutzpah—he escorted me the rest of the way to the newsroom, peeling away at the last second and disappearing into the night. He never wrote me that ticket.
A few nights like that stay with me in detail. Like the time I rode along with a rookie officer to get “up close” to the police. It was a quiet night, and nothing much happened until nearly midnight. The last call of his shift was a burglary in progress in an abandoned building. We pulled up at a hulking, dark two-story Victorian—perhaps an old boarding house—now falling to pieces in the Southern heat. The building was the darkest place I’d ever been—all the windows were boarded up. No light penetrated into the interior at all. The rookie searched the building with me trailing behind, trying not to fall through the rotting floors. He was nearly done when a man leapt out of the darkness and attacked him. If you had asked me five minutes later, I couldn’t have told you where the man came from. He seemed to materialize as if from thin air. One second he wasn’t there. The next, he was on the officer’s back, beating the hell out of him. It was then, and remains now, the worst fight I’ve ever seen. It was clearly a fight to the death. At first, I was sure the cop would handle it. He was fresh from the academy and trained to defend himself. But, meth gives you superpowers. And, after a few minutes, the rookie began to tire. The guy was getting far too close to his gun. Remembering the police radio in the car, I ran outside to call for help. To this day, I clearly recall hearing my own dead-scared voice coming out of the radio speakers. And, seconds later, the uncanny sound of dozens of sirens switching on all over the darkened city as the cavalry roared toward us. Everyone survived that fight. And the cops teased me for weeks about my terrified call for help. But after that, things changed on my beat. They treated me differently. I’d seen what it’s really like out there. I knew.
On another night I can still remember clearly, a sniper climbed to the roof of a nineteenth century Savannah rowhouse at the edge of downtown, firing at anyone who walked by. In an ill-advised attempt to get close to the action, I lost my way in the dark, inadvertently ending up on the street he was targeting. Which I didn’t realize, until a SWAT officer ran from the shadows to grab me around the waist, yanking me into the safety of an alley before I got my “damn fool head shot off,” as he put it.
Those were the good nights. There were plenty of bad nights, too. Nights when the victims were teenagers, barely old enough to conceive of their mortality when the bullet found them. Nights when the criminals were even younger.
I think I know why it took so long for me to feel ready to write about this world, even though it’s tailor-made for a crime series. Some of those memories had to fade just a little before I could begin to create a fictional character doing the job I once did. Walking streets I once walked. And not being me.
In addition, I had to learn how to translate that strange, nocturnal life—eight hours of violence and then off to the 24-hour supermarket and home to bed—into something readers could relate to.
Enough time has finally passed, that I can do that. More than that—enough time has passed that I actually want to do that. I want to remember why I loved that job. To recall that feeling of being part of a deadly club, along with the cops and the EMTs.
I also want to remember why, in the end, I quit.
I’ve tried to capture the emotional distance every good crime reporter—like every good cop—ultimately develops. It is this distance that allows them to make dark jokes while a body lies cooling on the sidewalk nearby. What looks like coldness is really self-protection.In his khaki slacks, striped polo shirt and loafers—he looked like someone I might know, were it not from the riverweed dangling from his fingertips.
That man being fished out of the river on my first day as a crime reporter was someone’s father. Someone’s husband. Someone’s brother. In his khaki slacks, striped polo shirt and loafers—he looked like someone I might know, were it not from the riverweed dangling from his fingertips. But, on that hot afternoon, with the smell of decaying flesh in my nose for the first time, I built an emotional wall between myself and him. Otherwise I couldn’t have written about him. And the wall has never come down. I still feel nothing when I think about him, all these years later. I built that wall solidly.
I suppose that was also something I wanted to explore. You do want, when you encounter death and pain in your work, to be certain that you can still feel things in the rest of your life. You have to be careful not to lose the ability to love and to hurt and to grieve. The growing suspicion that I was losing that ability was one reason I decided to stop covering crime, in the end. I toughed it out longer than most people. Nobody stays on the beat for long.
And so, in finally writing about a crime reporter, I can at last show people what it’s really like. Because I’ve lived it. In this series, I want to be true to that world as I remember it. True to 21-year-old me, tottering around crime scenes in my first grown-up shoes, trying to look fearless. Trying, most of all, to look like I knew what I was doing. I was still a kid. And, while I didn’t realize that at the time, the cops did. I credit them, to a certain extent, for taking the time and care to keep me alive. Because, like my character, I went to every crime scene they did, only I did it without Kevlar or a gun. With just a pen and a notepad, and a thousand questions. Questions that, on some level, I guess I’m still trying to answer.