Bestselling crime fiction writers Ace Atkins, Tim Dorsey and Lisa Unger, all featured authors at the Times Festival of Reading, have made use of real-life crimes in their novels to varying degrees. We asked them what crime they would write about if they wrote a nonfiction true crime book.
Colette Bancroft, Times book editor
Ace Atkins (Little White Lies, The Fallen) will appear on a panel with Lisa Unger, "Books and Bourbon," at noon in the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute Auditorium.
I've written four true crime novels and have long hoped to return to that kind of storytelling. Out of many of my ideas, and files I keep, I'm still obsessed with telling another Tampa story. I spent so many years putting together my novel White Shadow, which was the first novel about organized crime in Ybor City. That novel was supposed to be only a prequel to a book about the murder of Edy Parkhill in 1956 and the inquest that followed. I wrote a series of articles about her death when I was at the Tampa Tribune and already have done many mountains of research on the case. Many of the original players whom I interviewed are now dead. The story of Edy Parkhill brings to life Tampa and St. Pete in the 1950s: Old Florida, dirty cops, the mafia and dysfunctional, upstanding citizens who lived in nice, pleasant neighborhoods. Someday! I hope soon.
Tim Dorsey (Clownfish Blues) will speak at 11 a.m. in the Fish & Wildlife auditorium.
What happened to the missing stones in what was at the time the world's largest gem heist, the 1964 break-in at the Museum of Natural History in New York?
Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy and two friends pulled the job before returning to Miami. They were soon arrested and cooperated with authorities to retrieve the majority of the gems from associates in South Florida. But not all, including the Eagle Diamond, the largest ever mined in the United States.
I did a historical fiction account of this in my novel Cadillac Beach.
Lisa Unger (The Red Hunter) will appear on a panel with Ace Atkins, "Books and Bourbon," at noon in the Fish & Wildlife auditorium.
The whodunit of any given crime is of secondary interest to me. What obsesses me as a writer is: Why? What makes us who we are? What turns people into monsters? Is it nature or nurture or some impossibly complicated helix of both of those things? So when the shock and horror of the Las Vegas mass shooting settled in, I found myself with a deep need to understand how a 64-year-old man with no criminal record decided to kill 58 innocent people, harming 546 more.
Many might find this interest inappropriate, perhaps spending too much energy on the perpetrator, in essence giving a killer too much attention (notice how I didn't use his name). But how can we stop these things if we aren't willing to unflinchingly analyze why they happen in the first place? Of course it's about gun control. Why can we still get assault weapons in this country? But it's also about mental illness.
If I were to write a true crime book, it would be a study of the people who have perpetrated the most recent mass shootings in our country, digging deep into their histories, their associations, their various diagnoses and the points at which things might have gone differently. I have watched helpless, along with the rest of America, at the aftermath of innocent people in schools, in movie theaters, nightclubs and concerts losing their lives to the rages of psychopaths. Why are we so powerless to stop this? What are we missing? Monsters thrive in the dark. The only way to stop them is to shine a bright light and try to understand what's there.
Times Festival of Reading
The annual event is Nov. 11 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, 140 Seventh Ave. S. Ace Atkins, Tim Dorsey and Lisa Unger will be in the Fish & Wildlife Research Institute Auditorium, Atkins and Unger at noon, Dorsey at 11 a.m.