- by Edie Claire
An eerie, but true story from a very unlucky mystery writer
When I wrote my first mystery, I had no idea what I was doing. All I had was a cool idea (a woman finds a body in her backyard¾ then discovers it’s been embalmed already) and the desire to tell a story. When I got far enough along in my developing plot, which was set in the small Pittsburgh borough where I first practiced veterinary medicine, I sought out some expert assistance on police procedure.
The police chief of the quaint 6000-person borough was a man I knew; he frequently popped into the clinic to fetch a trap for a pesky raccoon, deliver a dog for rabies observation, or just chit chat with the boss. So it wasn’t too incredibly awkward to explain to him that I was writing a book (who isn’t?) and oh, by the way, exactly what would happen to someone who stole an embalmed corpse from a funeral home, kept it for a decade, and then dumped it on someone else’s property?
The chief, as it happened, was a peach. Told me everything I needed to know, and then some. “There would be an autopsy, of course…was the man murdered?” No, he died of natural causes. “Well then, you’re not looking at a felony. More like ‘abuse of corpse,’ and that’s a misdemeanor. Could still result in jail time, though. Where did they leave the body?”
It was a lovely conversation, and I hung up ever-so-impressed with myself. Maybe I could do this thing after all. So I wrote. And wrote, and wrote. And finally, six months later, I had a book. Or at least a draft of one. I began sending it out to friends and relatives, getting feedback. And then, it happened.
I was merrily reading along in the Pittsburgh paper when my eyes fixed on the following headline. Body found on embankment in Avalon.
I wiped off the coffee I had just spewed over the page. Embankment? There was only one embankment in Avalon, and that was the bluff above the Ohio River, on which I had set my fictional Victorian mansion. My character had taken a walk into her backyard (which consisted of a tree-covered cliff leading steeply down to the railroad tracks and riverbank below) and found the embalmed body of an elderly man resting in her hammock. I read on.
“The body of an elderly woman was found wrapped in plastic bags behind the Ponderosa Steak House…about twenty feet down a steep, wooded hillside leading to railroad tracks near the banks of the Ohio River. The remains were mummified…couldn’t estimate how long…an autopsy will be performed today.”
My eyes bugged. I couldn’t move. If my blood was actually still pumping, I couldn’t feel it. The Ponderosa Steak House was¾ at most¾ the equivalent of two city blocks from my fictional Victorian. It simply wasn’t possible. I glanced at my phone. It was going to ring any minute, I knew it. Right now, somewhere deep in the bowels of some dark police station, the chief was talking to homicide. “Yeah, she asked specifically about an embalmed body…said it wasn’t murder…but she described the location quite accurately…all about six months ago, I’d say…funny, she always seemed like such a nice person¾ ”
I stared at that phone for days. I watched the papers for more news. I wasn’t working at the clinic anymore¾ had the chief come by looking for me? Was the door slam I just heard out front a squad car? How much did the police believe in funny coincidences? Ironic twists? The tooth fairy?
A few days later, a second newspaper article appeared. Body found in Avalon not victim of foul play. The autopsy had showed she was around eighty years old and died of heart failure. She had been “dead for some time” in a sheltered place so that her remains had mummified instead of decomposing. The police were still looking for whoever had left her on the bluff. They wanted to arrest them for abuse of corpse.
This would be a better story if I told you that I was arrested the next day, spent two nights in the county lockup, and was only released on the condition that I never attempt to write another mystery, ever. Fortunately for me, that was not the case. My good buddy the chief, God bless him, either did not think I was sick enough to mummify somebody’s grandmother, or did not think I was stupid enough to ask his opinion on the matter first. Either way, he never said a word to me about it.
But when the book was published by Penguin-Putnam two years later, he did frame a copy of the book jacket and hang it on the stationhouse wall. He seemed pleased as punch to have his name in the acknowledgments.
It seemed like the least I could do.