How Christina Kovac’s career as a crime news producer inspired her to write a crime novel…

I was a kid from the suburbs when I began my j-school internship at a local news station in Washington, DC. It was the mid-1990’s, a time when crack cocaine hit the city streets, and the District had the ominous title of murder capital of the United States. My first week, I did a ride-along with a reporter on a call for a shooting by the Potomac, a male deceased with a gunshot wound to the head. We later discovered this was a suicide, not news, but the reporter thought it was a teachable moment. He made me look at what was left of the gruesome scene.

The reporters said, “a good journalist never averts their eyes.”

I wanted so badly to be good. I studied the scene without flinching.

It seems I’d passed my first awful test.

There were many more. In those first several years I saw that the best DC homicide detectives preferred to leave bodies uncovered so that no fiber would contaminate the scene. There were some crime scene photos I still remember. I listened to the families of victims as they described their lost loved ones, their words barely escaping through the tears.

After the shift was over, I traded tales with detectives and law enforcement officials and government spokesmen over drinks, listened to their frustrations and sorrow and strange gallows humor, their anxiety over women and girls who disappeared—if they would ever find her—and when the body was found—if they would ever close the case.

And those girls: it was their school photos that were the worst. When their families were too traumatized to talk and to share a picture, we always went to the school for yearbook photos, where the victims looked like all the other school girls. They could have been anyone. They could have been me.

At the tail end of the President Clinton administration, I was offered a job at the Washington Bureau of NBC News—network news, which reports on politics and the president, federal government and world news. Not as exciting as street crime, and though there was still the same level of spinning tales and parsing truth, nobody was dead. Politics was (at that time) cerebral, low key. Life was chill. I was feeling good.

Then came the Chandra Levy story.

Chandra Levy was a young government intern who’d gone for a jog in DC’s Rock Creek Park and disappeared. At the time of her disappearance, she’d been romantically involved with a married US Congressman. My deputy bureau chief asked me to call my old law enforcement sources and worked what we believed to be homicide.

I was back on the crime beat.

Chandra’s story was different than the others, though. Because of her connection to the congressman, her story was on the news 24-7. It was a huge DC story, and I got a front row seat to the political maneuvering behind police investigations, how officials can use others’ tragedies—the disappearance and murder of a young woman, say—to further their own ambitions.

That bothered me.

As did the many stories of violence against women and girls, of telling the same story again and again and again… I had always wished there was more I could do—a fantasy that I got to act out to an extent, in my creation of Virginia Knightly, the protagonist of THE CUTAWAY.

THE CUTAWAY by Christina Kovac is published by Serpent’s Tail, £12.99 Hardback.

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