‘Where do you get your ideas?’ A question dreaded by many writers, including myself, because the honest answer is so often: ‘I don’t know’. This isn’t the case, however, with my debut crime novel, Without Trace, the story of a single mother whose childhood sweetheart may or may not be a ruthless, manipulative murderer. The seeds of the story were partly sown a few years ago during a Malibu tea party with my ex wife, Kara, who now lives in California with her new husband, Bruce Lisker. We met up one sunny afternoon while I was on a work trip to Los Angeles. As a screenwriter, ‘backstory’ has always been a vital component of any plot. This is Bruce’s.
In 1983, shortly before his 18th birthday, he arrived at his parents’ Sherman Oaks house and knocked on the door. There was no reply. ‘So I start walking around the house,’ he told CBS’s 48 Hours Mystery. ‘The scene that greeted me was one I don’t wish on my worst enemies.’ His mother was lying on the floor. ‘She was covered in blood. She had two knives sticking out of her back. She was unconscious but she’s breathing, she’s alive.’
Bruce pulled the knives out of his mother’s back, ran into the house to make sure no one was hiding inside then dialled 911. But when the police arrived, they believed the hysterical, blood-spattered teenager to be not a distraught son but a killer.
Long story short: Bruce was convicted of murder. He spent 26 years behind bars, protesting his innocence until his conviction was finally overturned. Released on appeal in 2009, he filed a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, accusing the LAPD of fabricating the evidence that put him in prison. In 2015 the City Council voted to settle the case and pay compensation, although how any amount of money can make up for such an ordeal is far from clear.
When we met on that sunny Malibu afternoon, I was struck by the extraordinary whiteness of his skin – a ‘prison pallor’ resulting from a quarter of a century behind bars.
Above all, I was awestruck by the dignified demeanour of a man who has been through so much. Heaven only knows what emotions roil beneath the surface. And although my debut novel has nothing to do with Bruce’s case, some of the seeds of the story were sown that afternoon. What is it like to be wrongly convicted of murder? How do you live with the anger? How do you cope with knowing that for many people the finger of suspicion is still pointing in your direction?
Without Trace is the first in a series of psychological thrillers featuring Morgan Vine, a down-on-her-luck investigative journalist who lives in a converted railway carriage on the beach at Dungeness. For four long years she’s campaigned on behalf of her childhood sweetheart, Danny Kilcannon, convicted on dubious evidence of murdering his stepdaughter. But when Danny is freed on appeal and Morgan’s own daughter disappears, she’s forced to question everything she thinks she knows about the love of her life. Is he a wronged innocent? Or a ruthless killer who has deceived not only his old flame but the entire criminal justice system?
Without Trace by Simon Booker is out in ebook for Kindle; visit www.simonbooker.com for more information