Lay Death at Her Door.
We received an advance review copy of the novel. This intelligent mystery is an unforgettable read! Buhmann paints a fascinating portrait of the troubled mind of Kate Cranbrook, who gave false testimony in a murder trial that resulted in an innocent man's imprisonment. Her portrayal of relationships, especially the interaction between Kate and her aging "Pop," is layered and complex. If you love mysteries and thrillers, we recommend you get this book today.
And, be sure to drop in on the Lay Death at Her Door blog tour page, which has links to reviews of the book and author interviews, as well as giveaways!
Now, on to our conversation with Elizabeth!
Congratulations on your new novel. In a few words, how would you describe your book to someone who hasn't heard about it?
Thank you! It’s a mystery about a very old murder that comes unsolved when the man who was convicted of it is exonerated by new evidence. The story is told from the point of view of the rape victim whose eyewitness testimony put the wrong man in jail.
How long did it take you to write the novel? Can you give us some insights into your approach?
I wrote the first draft pretty quickly—in maybe six months—because I had a very clear handle on the plot to begin with. I knew exactly what had happened in the past (the central mystery is who committed the first murder in 1986 and why) and I knew what was going to happen once the old murder came unsolved.
It took me another year to work through the characterizations and rate of revelation. I had to weave two story lines together: what happened back in the 1980s that culminated in the first murder, and what happens in the present, starting with the exoneration and leading to the final full exposure.
In the story, Kate faces the exposure of a terrible secret from her past. I think this resonates with readers as a universal fear that something buried in our past will one day rise to confront us. Can you comment on this aspect of the story?
I am fascinated by this idea. In the very opening, Kate says, “Are there people who can tell their deepest secrets and remain standing? I suppose there must be. I cannot fathom it.”
I don’t have anything in my past that would be a catastrophic revelation like perjury, but there are definitely doors that I keep closed. Is that just me??? Does everybody have something in a closet? But I can only imagine what it would be like to have something like embezzlement or an affair or some other potentially life-wrecking secret hanging over my head.
As Kate discovers in the aftermath of the crime that victimizes her, a lie can take on a life of its own. She retreats into seclusion with Pop, distancing herself from a prying world. Can you comment on how this affects her and motivates her?
She feels her life has been taken from her. The teen-aged Kate is a very bold and confident young woman. After the crime, she is forced to be cautious and second-guess her every action. Her situation can only intensify, because the longer she remains silent, the worse her offense gets.
Kate does recognize that she is, as she says, “prisoner of my own decisions.” But her frustration is a huge part of her ongoing motivation. One thing that really interested me about this story was the fact that (again quoting Kate) “I could have weathered Jefferson’s exoneration if I’d only stayed home and left well enough alone.” This is not a classic mystery in which the detective-protagonist solves a crime. In this story, the truth eventually comes out as a natural consequence of Kate’s character and motivation.
The years of seclusion put a strain on the relationship she has with "Pop." We found your descriptions very effective; for example, in how Pop's subtle hand gestures infuriate her. What are some of your techniques for introducing this type of authenticity into your writing?
I’m not sure what to say except that I viewed the relationship between Kate and Pop as a classic crucible, a situation in which a character is locked up under pressure until steam comes out the cracks in her personality. The gestures are just mannerisms. But Kate’s reactions are barely suppressed outbursts of long-frustrated emotion.
The novel is told in the first person. Were there any challenges that this presented to you as an author?
I am equally happy writing in first or third person, but this novel is so character-driven that I thought it was a genuine case of a story that should be told in Kate’s own words, “as only I can tell it.”
Kate’s secrets could have been exposed by a detective, and the old crime could have been solved within the classic mold, but only Kate can fully reveal how her crucial decisions made sense to her at every fork in the road. Only Kate can give us the full hidden drama.
Kate is a fascinating main character, with intriguing as well as appalling qualities. Can you give any tips on how you went about portraying the depth of this character?
She was just very real to me. I tapped into some things we had in common. I lived in other countries and reentered American culture, much as Kate did when she came to the US from Africa. I was rather self-sufficient and independent as a child and as a teen-ager, much like Kate. I went to a women’s college in the country, like Kate (I graduated from Smith College).
Beyond that, maybe it was like method acting? I just really got into her head and understood where she was coming from. I tried to see the world from her point of view, building from childhood up. That I could get that close to someone as flawed as Kate—maybe that’s not a good sign about me! Maybe there is such a thing as being too open-minded.
Your story has an exciting pace and moves smoothly from action scenes to more introspective sequences. To us it seems a good blend of mystery and psychological thriller. How did you go about planning the overall plot and storyline of the novel?
I’m glad it worked for you! To me, there is a lot of parallelism and rhythm in the story itself. There are two time lines: the 1980s, leading up to the original murder, and the present time, in which history repeats itself.
There are also two settings: Kate’s house in rural western Virginia and Richmond, where she works. She travels back and forth between these two places. The country house is where the first crime happened; Richmond is where the present-day drama unfolds.
So I structured the novel by going back and forth in both time and place, from the past to the present, from Kate’s house in the country to her new life in the city.
Now that your novel is published, what advice would you give to other writers or would-be writers?
Hmm, well, I think right now I would advise other writers to think twice about creating such a dark protagonist. I can enjoy a book about a deeply flawed character, but not everyone is comfortable with that. By and large, main characters are supposed to be likable, ordinary people or if not ordinary, then better than most people, heroic even. My fascination with this story idea took me down the path of Humbert Humbert, Raskolnikov, Tom Ripley, Becky Sharp—characters like that, who live in infamy!
With its intelligent storyline, your novel brought to mind the works of NYT bestselling thriller author Anne Frasier. Who are some of the authors you follow?
You are very kind. I like to read the giants: Daphne DuMaurier (Rebecca), Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita), Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment)—these books are my touchstones. But I also love classic British detective fiction (Christie, Sayers, James and big fave Ruth Rendell) and American noir (Ross MacDonald, James Cain). Among contemporary works, I love SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep and the dark, scary novels of Gillian Flynn.
You have a background in the criminal justice system. How did that help or influence your writing of this book?
Thanks to my job, I was well aware of cases like Jefferson’s, where very old murders come unsolved because of advances in forensic science. The overturned convictions often do result in eyewitness testimony being set aside. Generally, the witnesses have just been mistaken; eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. My premise—that the witness lied—is pure fiction.
Kate’s probably right: the murder in Lay Death might very well have gone cold and remained unsolved if she had just laid low. That’s why she makes a good protagonist: she acts!
Through my job I also learned about victim issues and victim advocates, and this helped, not only with Kate, but with the character of Suzanne, who plays a very important role. Suzanne is an active conduit of information between Kate and her nemesis, Elsa Gabriel, the homicide detective who is waiting for Kate to make a mistake.
Okay, let's get a bit more personal. Tell us five random things about you!
1. I’m an Army brat! Grew up in New York, France, Germany and Japan, among other places.
2. I have a PhD in philosophy and taught at the University of Texas.
3. I owned a restaurant for several years.
4. I’m originally from Virginia, where my novel is set, but I’ve lived in Texas for thirty years.
5. It seems to horrify a lot of people that I get up at 4 AM every morning to write.
We enjoyed this book immensely. What's next for you? Do you have another book planned?
I’m so glad you enjoyed it! Thank you. My second book is just about finished. It’s a burning shipwreck of a book. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. It’s a Frankenstein story, told from the POV of the monster and the villagers. I know: What?!? But I do have another Lay Death-type novel all plotted out. I’ll start writing that this summer.
We'll wait in anticipation for those, while recommending Lay Death at Her Door for our readers in the meantime. Thanks for talking with us. We're pleased to feature your book on KBoards!
Thank you so much!
Lay Death at Her Door is available now to download to your Kindle!