This a story about why I read true crime, and why I write thrillers. A true story.
It starts out a normal night working the desk at my dorm in college. Big place, over 1,000 coed residents in it on seven sprawling floors. Normally, there would be two people working the desk around the clock.
That night, after midnight, it’s just me.
At one a.m., a man who lives in the dorm and was, until recently, dating a friend of mine (also a dorm resident) drops by to talk for a while about a movie we’ve both seen. In the process, he asks me if his ex-girlfriend is in her room. I tell him she’s gone on a date.
Okay, he says, and puts an envelope on the counter. Then he walks away.
The envelope says TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. I hesitate. Is it to me? What the hell? I finally open it and read it as he heads down the hall toward his room.
In it, he states he plans to get a shotgun and sit beside her dorm room door, and once he sees her coming, kill himself “so she’ll never forget what she did to me.” He also implies that she might not survive either.
I call police immediately, and alert the dorm manager. The manager asks me if the man has a shotgun with him now. He doesn’t, as far as I could see. The manager asks me to follow the man at a distance and see if he’s really armed.
And, foolishly, I agree. I’m eighteen. I think I know what I was doing.
I do not.
The man sees me on the way back to his room and stops to talk to me as if nothing odd is going on. Then he opens his room door, picks up a shotgun sitting inside, and points it at me. He tells me to get into his room.
I sit down, and he closes and locks the door. I tell him I’ve already called the police and they are probably already here and on the way to the room. He nods. For the next thirty minutes, he explains to me why he’s doing all this. He says he likes me. He doesn’t think that I should be in the middle of what he calls “his troubles.” I have no idea what else he says during that conversation; all I can remember is if he moves the shotgun toward me again, I’m probably going to die. I ask him to please put the gun away, because he’s scaring me. He shakes his head, but he keeps it aimed off to the side. It’s between us, but not threatening me directly.
Someone knocks on the door and asks if I am inside. It’s another dorm employee. I say yes, and ask my captor him if I can go. He says I can. Somehow, I walk calmly to the door, open it, and go outside.
The other dorm employee pulls me past the police line.
The man in the room surrenders without a fight. The two of us, the dorm employees, are sent in after to confiscate anything from the room that the man might use to harm himself or others … and why the police let us do that, I have no idea.
Half an hour later, my friend comes home from her date. She’s alive. She survived. And honestly: I’m not sure she would have if I hadn’t opened that note.
To Whom It May Concern didn’t have to concern me. But I’m glad it did.
That night was when the world changed for me. What I’d seen in that room baffled and terrified me. It was an introduction to a world where people weren’t what they seemed to be.
So … true crime isn’t just stories to me. It’s emotionally and psychologically valuable material about the world around me. When I read about crimes and criminals and victims, I’m trying to come to terms with those moments in my life where my view of humanity … shifted. And that shift? It might have saved me on more than one occasion.
I still remember the moment when my tire blew out on a Dallas freeway at midnight twenty years ago, and I had to park in a dimly lit stretch of shoulder to change it. (I was fully capable of changing it.) Three cars stopped. Two held men who were polite and took my word that I didn’t need them to rescue me.
The third man was different. When I waved and said, “I’m okay, almost done,” he didn’t stop coming toward me. There was something in his body language, something relentless. Every account of women murdered or raped in situations like this one ran through my mind. I stood up, faced him with the tire iron in my hand, and said, “You need to turn around now. I’m fine. Please leave.”
He kept coming.
I told him, “I’m not giving you the tire iron.”
He kept coming.
I backed up, took out my cell, and called 911. I held it out to show him the call.
He stopped. He called me a filthy bitch. Said I was a paranoid whore who deserved to be raped and left to die. I stood there, not moving, until he was back in his car and driving away. Then I shakily told the 911 operator that I was okay, but I gave her the license number of his car. I never heard back about him; maybe he was just an angry guy who never hurt anyone. But I’m still convinced that reading true crime stories, and having a reasonable understanding of how to read signals, saved my life that night.
I’ve since read a lot more true crime and it’s helped me understand the vast, dark range of human behavior. I listen to true crime podcasts for the same reason … to try to put some kind of context around the horrible things people do. And, in some sense, prepare for the worst.
It’s probably also why I write thrillers. Thrillers can be as grim, as terrifying, or as inexplicably horrific as the real cases, but when I write that scenario, I can control the narrative at last. The potential victim can escape. The killer can be stopped. And the scales can be balanced. Thrillers are, to me, a way to shape the story in a healthier way than often happens in real life.
Writing the Dead Air project with showrunner Gwenda Bond and cowriter Carrie Ryan was a real revelation, because although I’d thought that my brush with darkness was unique, turns out we three all have some level of insight into the darkness around us, and we were able to bring that sense of tension and fear into the story. It’s built around a rich background of Kentucky horse racing (Gwenda’s local knowledge!) and the lengths people will go to in order to find justice (something Carrie’s well-versed in). Plus, we all have an intense interest in podcasts that break down crimes and motivations, so we were all in agreement from the beginning about how we wanted this story to feel.
Dead Air is an ambitious dual offering of serialized novel and dramatic audio performances, all for one low subscription price. It also has a stand-alone podcast by the main character that tells the story of a “solved” murder that may not be quite as solved as the rich and powerful would prefer. We’ve been thrilled to work with the amazing publisher Serial Box, who has a wide variety of serialized novel/audio projects like Tremontaine and Bookburners you might also enjoy.
So how many degrees of separation are you from real murder? I’m only one … four times over.
It’s best to keep it in fiction.
Rachel Caine is the NYT, USA Today, and #1 internationally bestselling author of more than 50 novels, including the new Stillhouse Lake series. Her first thriller, Stillhouse Lake, was a finalist for Original Paperback Thriller from the ITW Thriller Awards, and is currently a finalist for Best Thriller at Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Awards. She’s on social media and can be found at rachelcaine.com.
About Dead Air:
Welcome to Dead Air, where M is for midnight, Mackenzie…and murder.
Mackenzie Walker wasn’t planning on using her college radio show to solve a decades old murder, but when she receives an anonymous tip that the wrong man may have taken the fall, she can’t resist digging deeper. It doesn’t take long for Mackenzie to discover gaps in the official story. Several potential witnesses conveniently disappeared soon after the murder. The victim, a glamorous heiress and founder of a Kentucky horse-racing dynasty, left behind plenty of enemies. And the cops don’t seem particularly interested in discussing any of it. But when the threats begin, Mackenzie knows she’s onto something. Someone out there would prefer to keep old secrets buried and they seem willing to bury Mackenzie with them. Thankfully, she’s getting help from a very unexpected source: the victim’s son, Ryan. The closer she gets to him, however, the more important it is for Mackenzie to uncover the truth before he gets buried alongside her.
Read or listen to weekly episodes of the serial novel Dead Air from bestselling authors Gwenda Bond, Rachel Caine, and Carrie Ryan, and then check out Mackenzie’s podcast for a uniquely immersive experience. Does the truth lie in the serial, the podcast…or somewhere in-between? Subscribe to the serial here. Check out the podcast on iTunes, Google, or wherever you get your podcasts.