A new novel by a Raleigh author and one-time Jacksonville newspaper reporter introduces a new character investigating murderous going-ons at her old stomping ground. George Olsen has more.
In 1993 N.P. Simpson published a book about a 1981 triple homicide at Camp LeJeune that to this day is unresolved.
“The perception was that the person who did it got off on a technicality. That’s not true. That’s not the case at all. But at the same time that gives it an unsatisfying edge. I can’t supply another ending to this. This is real life. Real life is a continuum.”
Simpson says that was a problem with her book “Tunnel Vision”… readers don’t want to feel that a murderer somehow escaped punishment or was rewarded. And that’s why she believes fictional murder mysteries are so popular with the reading public.
“In these murder mysteries you’re dealing with profound events, the greatest event that could happen is the loss of a life but its nobody you’re related to and nobody you know. They’re fictional characters so I think that allows you to confront this but at the same time you can distance yourself from it. In the same way, I don’t want to be a homicide detective. I’m glad we have them but frankly I don’t think I could deal with it. At the same time, to read about it and take just a little bit of their life is rewarding and it’s exciting.”
Thus N.P. Simpson… twenty years after her first non-fiction book publication… takes on the world of a fictional investigator in the first of what she hopes will be a series starring Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent Fran Setliff. Her first Fran Setliff novel is entitled “BOQ” and is set at Camp Lejeune… an area she is familiar with as a then wife to a Marine based at Lejeune and as a former reporter for the bases’ Globe newspaper and then for the Jacksonville Daily News. That familiarity is just part of the reason for basing the book at Camp Lejeune.
“It’s an interesting cast of characters, and three quick things that are unique about a military community. First thing… everybody who lives there is young. Second thing, everybody who lives there is fit. It is unusual to see an obese person on a Marine Corps base. Fitness is their mania. Fitness is part of their job description. They are actually tested on it. That’s different from what you see in the civilian world. And the third thing is everybody that you see there has a sense of purpose, has a job that has a good opportunity for promotion, every kid in the school has one person who is employed in a job that has an opportunity for promotion. That’s not true of many communities. It almost sounds like Stepford Wives. There are definitely difficulties. I’m not playing down that there are negatives that you have to accept but at the same time it’s unique and has a whole different vibe because of it.”
But the uniqueness of military life gave Simpson pause about how relatable a book involving military culture would be given a growing gap between civilians and the military as the percentage of Americans who serve dwindles. Her concern was those unfamiliar with the military might have a hard time identifying with its culture.
“and I tell myself you’re worried about Camp Lejeune and here are people buying Star Trek books, talk about a really, really different environment.”
Hence she went ahead and set the book on Lejeune post-Gulf War but pre-9/11. Simpson says she didn’t want to get into the issue of terrorism. But nevertheless, she does bring up issues that were common to the military of twenty years ago as well as today, such as issues surrounding the integration of women into the military.
“One of the … you might say… suspects involved in this was a woman Marine officer, and I think she makes it clear that there… juggling is the same whether it’s a woman Marine or whether it’s a Home Depot executive… of the home and your professional career and maybe more demanding in the military because you may not be gone for just a weekend but a whole year at a time. There’s that. A woman being able to maintain her personal integrity and still able to assert herself, play a kind of game when the rules are already built in and she’s having to bend them a little but at the same time she doesn’t want to bend them so much that she damages the organization.”
But while “BOQ” touches on contemporary themes, at its heart it’s an old-fashioned “closed circle” mystery. There’s a body in the room… or in this case, under a dock… and a limited circle of people who might be just as happy the victim is dead rather than alive. And N.P. Simpson is fine with that. While any modern murder mystery might initially draw comparisons to contemporary fictional crime-solvers like Kay Scarpetta or Alex Delaware, Simpson doesn’t particularly want that association.
“I don’t much care for the grisly gore type novel that has been popular recently because I don’t have to read six pages of a cell layer by cell layer description of a rape to grasp the seriousness of the event. There’s something about it I just don’t care for. I’m a Conan Doyle fanatic. I’m a Sherlock Holmes admirer. It’s the step by step process of what is going on here and what is the conclusion is what’s important to me. I’m really not that interested in how much of a psychopath the killer was.”
Simpson says she already has two more books featuring Fran Setliff in mind… the next to take place not on board Camp Lejeune but at Guantanamo Bay in the early 1990s. The gap between publishing “BOQ” and the next… probably not as long as the 20-year gap between non-fiction book #1 and fiction book #1, though Simpson says she probably re-wrote “BOQ” at least six times before it was ready to go… and the killer in version one wasn’t the same as the killer who made the printed page. That might seem a little odd but she says in this closed circle type of mystery everybody and anybody should make sense for the book to satisfy its reader.
“I think I did try … let’s say there were six different people who might be plausible suspects… I think I had to write it in my mind as though each one was the actual perpetrator because for it to be credible to the reader it had to be credible to me. In other words it couldn’t be purely a red herring… you know, I’m not sure Agatha Christie actually said this but I think I read somewhere that she said with a really good mystery you should be able to go back to the beginning of the book and re-read it and see early signs that this was the way it really happened, there should be clues from the very beginning, and if you don’t see any clues until the last quarter of the book then you’re jerking… well, Agatha Christie wouldn’t have used the term jerking the reader around… you’re sort of playing with the reader.”
N.P. Simpson is the author of “B.O.Q. – An NCIS Special Agent Fran Setliff Novel.” It’s published by John F. Blair. I’m George Olsen.