WHEN IT COMES to American regionalism, the South is rich, idiosyncratic territory for novelists. But because it is a place of such entrenched clichés — Southern belles, grits, The Dukes of Hazzard — it can be difficult to portray it in new ways. You have to know a place intimately to write beyond its familiar boundaries, and Tennessee native Lisa Turner does just that with her Billy Able mysteries.
Three books into the series with Devil Sent the Rain, Turner continues her exploration of the deep striations that scar the social bedrock in this part of the country. Billy is an emotionally damaged Memphis homicide detective with a heartbreaking past. Abandoned by his alcoholic mother, he was raised by an uncle who disowned him after he left his law studies to become a police officer. He is from the so-called wrong side of the tracks, although he has ventured across those tracks more than once, most notably in the name of love. It is one of these rich-girl-poor-boy romances that returns to haunt him in Devil Sent the Rain when Caroline Lee, a Memphis socialite, is murdered.
Billy’s adolescent relationship with Caroline extended to her family, and as the investigation moves forward he discovers muddled levels of corruption that threaten to topple not only one of the region’s most powerful dynasties, but also his own career. While aspects of Billy include classic mystery tropes, his outlook is what gives this series its fresh perspective. Untangling his disdain for privilege from his lingering feelings for the privileged woman he once loved, his quest for justice must overcome his empathy for those whose lives have been warped by the insular world of Southern aristocracy.
I interviewed Lisa Turner by email about bird dog championships, high-context cultures, and what it means to be “Southern crazy.”
KIM FAY: Each of the books in your series has a strong awareness of Southern tradition. You have characters who participate in tournament croquet and bird dog championships, and in a foyer during a funeral there is a silver tray for people to drop off their calling cards. How much of this Old South culture is part of your own experience?
LISA TURNER: As a teenager I rode show horses, so mingling with the Old South hunt and polo crowd was a natural part of my life. Horses, duck hunting, bird dogs, and bass fishing have deep roots in Southern culture. In fact, the National Field Trial Championship for Bird Dogs is conducted on the grounds of Ames Plantation 20 miles from my home. Many of the settings I depict in my novel come from that world.
In a city of a million people we still sit on the porch in the evening. There’s pie for Sunday dinner and serious discussion over the fence about who in the neighborhood will be awarded Yard-of-the-Month. Recently, my 94-year-old neighbor and I were cataloging her three sets of sterling flatware and extensive collection of serving pieces, all handed down through generations. She pointed out a spoon that was used for salted nuts and another used for unsalted. Then she mentioned that her mother’s chauffeur had been the one to polish the brass doorknobs every week, but it was the laundress who did the best job cleaning the silver.
I was developing the story line for Devil Sent the Rain at the time, and my neighbor’s comments inspired me to capture the disturbing echoes of this Old South culture by creating the wealthy and powerful Lee family. Their sense of entitlement and desire to hang onto a dying lifestyle led to their crimes and ultimately the family’s downfall.
There are beautiful moments in Devil Sent the Rain when Billy is consciously aware of his environment. For example, “This had been the landscape of his childhood — land flat as the bottom of the ocean, hot green fields where kudzu grew six inches in a day.” And later, while he’s visiting a plantation, “This wasn’t his home, but a part of him would always be connected to this dark, sweet soil.” Would you discuss your relationship to the landscape of the South and why it plays such an important role in your books?
I’ve spent many afternoons riding horseback through Delta river bottoms. The experience taught me to take cues from nature. I know a hard winter is coming when I see spiders spinning their webs larger than usual and hornet nests built up high to avoid snow banks. If you see a lot of pinecones bunched at the treetops and squirrels running around like crazy looking for nuts, you need to check your antifreeze, because it’s going to get damned cold.
My heart belongs to those quiet woods where my earliest stories began, and because of this, my characters are a part of me. Billy and I share an awareness of how quickly a stream can turn wild or a serene setting can turn dangerous when a bobcat enters the picture. Billy was raised in the Mississippi Delta. He’s a hunter and a good one. As a homicide detective he hunts down killers for a living. His rural background gives him high regard not only for the unpredictability of nature, but also for the depravity of humans.
Billy is not a bleeding heart, but he recognizes the inequities of the Old South.
[He] rode in uncomfortable silence past rows of tarpaper shacks. He had a lot on his mind, but was still aware that the people living inside those houses couldn’t afford an electric bill, so they cooked with butane that blackened the walls and left half an inch of soot clinging to the ceiling. These were families left behind with no education and no hope […] The systemic poverty in the region made his heart ache.
When you started your series, did you intend to write about social issues, or is it simply impossible to ignore these issues if you’re writing about the South?
Billy’s strong sense of justice and humanity naturally brings social issues into my stories. I usually open with a murder that involves the rich and powerful then move to the realities of poverty, race, and class. The combination creates texture and realism. In Robert McKee’s Dialogue, I came across the term “high-context culture.” The definition fits my view of the South:
High-context cultures have a strong sense of tradition and history. They change very slowly over time, so from generation to generation their members hold many beliefs and experiences in common […] They have low ethnic and social diversity. They value community over the individual.
The description paints with a broad brush, but an environment with tightly held allegiances and little tolerance for the “other” is fertile ground for any author. The inclusion of social issues is for me, intentional and inevitable.
Your story’s patriarch, Saunders Lee, says, “You know everyone at the club thinks the Lee clan is perfect, but we’re like every other good Southern family — ‘crazy’ runs in our blood. We’re just better at pretending.” This line reminded me of a conversation we once had about August: Osage County, a play about a tormented Oklahoma family, written by Tracy Letts. I found the play horrifying, while you said the author really nailed it. Could you explain what you meant by that?
The play’s high drama and self-indulgent personalities are painfully familiar. Every region in the United States has people with behavioral disorders, but it seems the South has been blessed with more than its share. Flannery O’Connor said, “When I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it’s because we are still able to recognize one.”
After watching August: Osage County, I brought up the phenomenon of “Southern crazy” to friends over supper. We settled on two points. First, a lot of Southerners live in small towns and the countryside where extended family forms a security blanket. Young adults live close to Momma and Daddy, uncles and aunts. A bipolar cousin’s antics are tolerated and a kleptomaniac brother on drugs gets away with creating havoc because they can always count on a meal and a bed with a relative.
The second point is that crazy folks generate what Southerners love most — a good story. Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and Larry Brown only had to listen to the neighbor’s gossip for the seeds of a best seller. My pest exterminator, who is gorgeous and gay, told me that when she’s bored she calls her mother to hear 30 minutes of wild stories told between puffs on a Lucky Strike. In the South, we don’t need to watch cable reality shows. We live that reality.
Let’s wrap up with a question on craft. In the past, we’ve discussed how your childhood has affected the way you write. Please explain these influences and how they shape your novels.
My father was an engineer, my mother an interior designer. Because I grew up watching them work through design problems, the architecture of story structure fascinates me. When I start a new manuscript, I’m a kid building a toy that has a lot of moving parts. I can’t wait to wind it up and see if it runs. Creating a mystery with puzzles inside puzzles is intense work. The logic lessons my parents gave me along with Robert McKee’s book Story — a master class on the principles of story structure — have given me a solid foundation. My desire is to write a mystery with the attention to craftsmanship you find in a house built to last. I’d like my stories to be a house you want to return to, much like the books we reread year after year.