Images of Warfar in Tina Whittle's BLOOD, ASH & BONE
Posted by Barbara Leavy on Mar 16 2014, 6:47 PM
                                 IMAGES OF WARFARE IN TINA WHITTLE’S Blood, Ash & Bone
     Blood, Ash & Bone is the third mystery in Tina Whittle’s Tai Randolph Series. It is so good that readers will want to go back and read the first two, not only to fill in parts of the back story, but to prolong the enjoyment offered by the third.  Its plot is both intricate and fast-moving; its cast of characters not only unusual but also vividly real. Whittle is, moreover, a fine writer.  She possesses a large and rich vocabulary and to find an awkward sentence in her book would be like trying to find a weed in the famous gardens  of Savannah, where most of the action of B, A & B takes place.  Whittle has a special gift for images, which sometimes extend beyond themselves, becoming part of the book’s themes. A good example occurs when Tai Randolph thinks of another character, a woman who spends a considerable amount of her vast fortune collecting Civil War memorabilia, which she hoards in a private and hidden room into which only visitors chosen by her can enter.  Tai thinks that if “some apocalypse ever did strike Atlanta, future generations would find Audrina Harrington in this cloistered space, surrounded by her treasures like an entombed pharaoh.”  Such a member of Egyptian royalty would, of course, be preserved as a mummy, and preserving the old south and its traditions, which by Tai’s time would exist as myths perhaps even more than as reality, is a theme that runs through B, A & B. The book challenges non-southern and perhaps even southern readers to match their assumptions about the south to what Whittle’s book reveals as more likely truths. And this theme is interwoven with another closely related to it: the disparity  between illusion and reality. In this way, B, A & B will not only satisfy readers who want mysteries to supply a puzzle to be worked through as they discover whodunit, but also those who enjoy the layers of meaning found in good novels.
     Someone who has lived an entire life in the northeastern United States and then visits the south may feel as if in another country.  Probably such visitors expect to experience a totally different culture. And, as one of the characters in B, A & B  remarks, people see what they want to see.  Tourists want to see the real Gone with the Wind,  not some artificial, filmed version of it.
       What they want is often humorously exploited by tour guides. Before moving to Atlanta to take over a late cousin’s gun shop, Tai had been such a guide in Savannah. She describes how she hung “out with the other guides. We often held contests to see who’d spun the biggest sensationalistic lie and passed it off as fact.” While this passage illustrates Tai’s (and Whittle’s) capacity for wit and irony, a serious theme in B, A, & B,  concerns the difference between what the imagination conjures up and what a close look reveals. This narrative motif pervades the traditions surrounding the Civil War and its reenactments for the satisfaction of the participants and the fantasies of the spectators.  Images of war, what is real and not real, pervade Whittle’s mystery.  And they supply an important gloss on the sometimes tenuous bond between Tai and her lover Trey Seaver, whose relationship is part physical passion and part embattlement. For love is at this time something feared rather than sought by them.  As with any war, they must work their way toward at least a truce and, hopefully and finally, a negotiated peace. But not yet.. At one point, Tai says to Trey, “We make a good team, but we make good adversaries too.”
     It may take a visitor to the south awhile to realize that references to the war are to the Civil War or what is also called the War Between the States.  For tourists, the idea that the war is ongoing is part of the titillating pleasure they get from what they are told. And one piece of misinformation they may get is that southerners, some of whom wish to keep the war alive, refer to it as the War for Southern Independence or the War of Northern Aggression.  The latter designation, Whittle says, began as a joke; of course southerners refer to the Civil War or War Between the States (private correspondence).  Joke or no joke, there remains a serious undertone to the humor or fakery.  While tourists are not likely to focus on the carnage at Vicksburg and Gettysburg—and other places not as well-known--where soldiers from the same family fought on opposite sides but died together, there remains a certain reality that supplies an ominous note to B, A & B.  For diehard racists, such as some of the bad guys in the book, the war is still going on. For them it was a war of Northern Aggression, for they believe they were robbed of their birthright, the sure knowledge that white people are superior to black; and robbed of their culture, laws and practices that reinforced their superiority and required that black people be not only subservient to them, but also obviously subservient as they sat in back of buses or drank from different water fountains, or sent their children to different schools.  As Tai says about such people, who had formed a new Ku Klux Klan, they were trying to keep alive a history right-thinking southerners would prefer to forget.
     This history is both romanticized and made vivid at the Southeastern Civil War Expo in Savannah, where Tai is going as a vendor to sell modestly-priced memorabilia. Trey is going as well, not to enjoy the vacation they had hoped to have together, but in the capacity of his job as a Corporate Security Agent, designing security systems such as the one that will protect Audrina Harrington’s locked-room treasures; to assess risks and liabilities at such events at the Expo; and sometimes and reluctantly to provide security for individuals. Trey had once been a cop, was part of a SWAT team, but had had a bad accident with resulting brain damage that had closed the doors on his former work. 
     The central puzzle in B, A & B concerns a supposedly newly-found but stolen Bible given and autographed by President Abraham Lincoln to General William T. Sherman, who fought and burned his way through the south until he came to Savannah, where the city was surrendered to him and therefore spared destruction. If authentic, the Bible would command an enormous price in six figures, and so to possess it becomes a motive for murder. Whether or not it is authentic is one of the book’s mysteries. Another is why so many people who preferred to remember a glorified south would want this reminder of southern defeat and ignominy. The money was an obvious incentive but many of the people desperate to find the Bible already doubted its authenticity. Obviously there is something else at stake.  Tai has taken on the job of finding the Bible, and at the Expo and in Savannah, she will meet others who want it or might have it.  And she will realize that more than one war is going on in Savannah, a simulated one but also a real one. Some of the visitors and participants at the Expo are not only immersed in the Civil War and the profits to be gained from the gathering, but are also at war with each other, each with a different agenda. “Wars within wars going on here,” muses Tai at one point.
     Back in Savannah, where Tai has her roots, she realizes she is revisiting her own history. Now she lives in Atlanta, “that place of ashes and rising, not this place of salt and tides,” a city “sprawled like an enormous amoeba, a city as transitory as its airport,” a city where you could “write your own history” until even you believed it.  This contrast is but one of many in the book. In many ways Savannah is the south because of its commitment to resist change. Tai explains to Trey that the “whole city’s cursed, you know.  By a frustrated journalist shaking his fist on his way out of town: ‘I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is the far worst of all curses—to remain as you are!’ And it is, in many ways, exactly the same.”  But in a novel in which illusion and reality are constantly at odds, in which what is real and what is not drives much of the plot, Tai also realizes that even this seeming permanence is an illusion.  At a Black and White Ball, the climax of the Expo, Tai sees herself “surrounded by men and women pretending to be dead sympathizers to an armed rebellion. I was among the doomed and blinkered and blind, deliberately unaware of the crashing violence roaring down on them to the bottom of the river.”
     Whether it is called the Civil War or, as a joke, the War of Northern Aggression, there is no question that the war has not fully retreated into history.  Past and present are joined in the character of Audrina Harrington, a rich woman whose home and way of entertaining visitors speak to traditional southern refinement, but who possesses a veneer that covers an aggressive and acquisitive appetite for war memorabilia and a ruthlessness no pretended gentility could fully hide.  She buys and collects war mementos, with a preference for ephemera, the books, letters, journals that she keeps with such objects as confederate swords in an hermetically sealed room designed by Trey, seen only by those Audrina allows to see it. It is ironic that in a book in which Savannah and Atlanta form contrasts, she lives in the latter, for it is Savannah that her private collection most resembles. Like the city, Audrina’s secret room is, as she wishes, frozen in time no matter how many items she adds to it.  She and her brother Reynolds think differently, for he is convinced the collection should be part of a museum, available to the public.  At the same time, Reynolds plays at being a southern aristocrat. When asked by Tai whether he too collects memorabilia, he responds, “No. I’m more of the genteel ne’er-do-well,” implying he is frittering away his share of the inheritance divided between him and Audrina instead of putting it to any use at all.
     Audrina, in contrast, is willing to spend her money on the memorabilia she hides away; one sword alone is valued at fifty-thousand dollars.  Is it just greed and ego that drive her, such as can be found in private collectors throughout the world, or is Audrina fearful that displaying the memorabilia of past glories might hasten change, particularly in how historical events were perceived and interpreted. When Tai goes to see her, Audrina is holding court in her three-story Georgian Mansion and serves tea in porcelain china as it would once have been served by the lady of a plantation, although there is nothing genteel about her manner. Audrina is used to being in charge and defines herself not according to her wealth, which is considerable, but by her pedigree. Reynolds is sarcastic when he tells Trey that his sister “falls for that ‘great privilege, great responsibility’” line every time.  But what would be her responsibility?  Again, to preserve the past, or at least her conception of the past. At the end of B, A & B,  the extent of her illusions suggests the end of a tradition, most of which Tai thought should have ended long ago.
     Such themes in B, A & B, are not forced upon Whittle’s readers, but emerge from a thoughtful reading of this mystery and reveal Whittle’s understanding of how the present is embroiled in history. That Tai Randolph has throughout the book to come to terms with her own past adds another layer of meaning to B,, A & B.  Unlike Savannah, where Tai has her roots and where a visit immerses her in her past, Atlanta offers safety. For it is the transitory quality of Atlanta that allows its residents to write their own history, until, as Tai remarks, they themselves come to believe it.
     In her concluding Author’s Notes, Tina Whittle talks of Savannah, a “city full of stories—ghost stories, gossip stories, old stories, new stories. Some really happened and some are burnished with the bright hand of invention.” B, A & B  brings to life not only the historic south but its changes. And its sustained illusions. In the reenactments of the war, participants even want to be clothed in the kind of hand-stitched underwear worn by southern soldiers, and Tai arranges for a relative in Alabama to sew them, transporting them in cartons as she leaves Atlanta to attend the Savannah Expo. The divide that separates the preservationists from those accepting and even welcoming change is ironically expressed as Tai thinks about the simulated wartime underwear, and the metaphor she uses is a strong political statement: “My hard-core clients wouldn’t wear anything else—stitch Nazis, they were called behind their backs.”
     But whereas the reenactments created an illusion of the war, something more ominous and real is also too evident. The Ku Klux Klan, which once burned crosses on lawns and lynched black men, the often called “strange fruit” that hung from trees, is no longer the invisible empire it was. At one and the same time, Whittle assures her readers that ideological progress has taken place in the south, and alarms them with the knowledge that the Ku Klux Klan has come out in the open, organized into groups and committees who claim their rights under the Constitution to assemble and speak freely, to be represented, neatly dressed and squeaky clean, ingratiating at public gatherings and expos, espousing their views and distributing pamphlets about the superiority of the white race and inferiority of the black. But the very openness of the Klan means that it now has the capacity to achieve its aims lawfully by winning prestige, influence, and power, by insinuating its members into places of power in local and not-so-local government. And what this means is that there still remains another kind of invisible presence, so that it is difficult to pick out Klan members and sympathizers from among one’s acquaintances, the teachers, lawyers, politicians with whom one interacts on a daily basis. Even more threatening, the lawfulness of the Klan and its attempts to present itself as a different organization—it is not anti-black but pro-white--spawns splinter groups that train their own SWAT teams, a militia not only ready but eager to begin again the war lost long ago.  One of its members warns Tai that a war is coming and that she had better decide which side she is on. 
     This ongoing racial divide differentiates characters in B, A & B--but not completely.  In addition, Tai’s relationship with those to whom she is close, such as an affectionate tie to an uncle, Boone, a “gunrunner, moonshiner, smuggler, and former KKK Grand Dragon,” as well as “one of the most dangerous men in” his county, complicates the human relations in B, A & B. Some characters cannot easily be reduced to the good guys and the bad. Boone, who had long since renounced his allegiance to the Klan, has a soft spot for Tai and she can rely on him for help when needed—as she comes to need it in this mystery. That she has long lived under Boone’s safekeeping produces one of the funniest lines in Whittle’s book.  “For years,” claims Tai, “I couldn’t pick a fight on any playground in town.”
     Even the female villain, Hope, who, once a close friend, stole Tai’s ex-boyfriend and now plays a major part in the crimes surrounding the disappearing Bible, is less frightening although still dangerous than she is someone the reader loves to hate. But Hope is also a familiar type, one many women readers knew intimately from secondary school or college, a ruthless egoist who, exuding charm, has no qualms about getting her way however she has to, indifferent to the emotional and other consequential expenses to those to whom she had seemed closest. She lords it over and hurts other women because she enjoys doing so, creating high drama out of her life and mocking theirs. Her scheme in B, A & B involves impersonating Tai so that people will impute to Tai the wrongdoings actually committed by Hope.  As a result, Tai is exposed to danger from other, furious characters in the book and even from the law.  But when, finally, Hope gets her comeuppance, she is reduced to a whimpering nonentity, hoping to seem pitiable but not succeeding.
     The structure of B, A and B involves two closely interlocking narratives, so seamlessly joined that readers who stop and think may well want to go back to reread the mystery.
One of these narratives has already been described: it is the story of the south, some of its citizens clinging to traditions, still fighting a war if only vicariously, as well as fighting those ready to accept change or even daring to approve the change.  The other narrative involves the story of Tai and her lover Trey, a passionate relationship that nonetheless is embroiled in conflict whose skirmishes are like those engaged in during battle. 
     There is a clear back story about Trey that is narrated in the former two books of the Tai Randolph series, when Trey has an accident and suffers brain damage.  He is an enigmatic character who has undergone changes and, like Tai and like the south, has now to partly find and partly recreate his identity. Not sure of who he is, he defends himself against uncertainty by remaining aloof, which, combined with his good looks turns him into a kind of Byronic or Scott hero, a romantic figure who acts courteous when he chooses to but whose attractive veneer covers something else, an inner- self that is dangerous but glimpses of which nonetheless tantalize others. He knows it is this seeming enigma as much as his skills that cause people to want to employ him, and this bothers him—perhaps because their not knowing him echoes his difficulty in knowing himself, or even deciding if he wants to know himself..
     Trey is one of the most unique—if not the most unique—male lover of a female investigator, professional or amateur, to be found in mysteries. And he adds another dimension of mystery to B, A & B. Given what is unknown about the human memory and the unconscious, it is perhaps not surprising that he bears a startling if not exact similarity to the character most historians of crime fiction believe is the first detective in an English story: C. Auguste Dupin. (Of course it is difficult to imagine Dupin making passionate love or any kind of love to a woman.)  Tina Whittle says that she cut her literary teeth on Edgar Allen Poe (private correspondence).
     Dupin, says the narrator of Murders in the Rue Morgue, the first of the three Dupin stories, has a perhaps diseased intellect. He prefers the dark to the light, going out only at night and keeping windows shaded during the day to maintain the darkness. The narrator describes how he “could not help remarking and admiring . . . a peculiar analytic ability in Dupin.”  When exercising this ability, his “manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression.”  Dupin is described as being “fond of enigmas, of conundrums, of hieroglyphics,” and his ability to analyze them might possibly be “invigorated by mathematical study.”
     Trey does not shun the light of day, although his annoyed refusal to participate in a game of golf suggests that it may be the very openness of the course that disturbs him. Tai describes how Trey’s mind “required distance and objectivity, and a golf course was an organic, almost sentient thing, ripe with chaos and distraction.” His preferred place (other, perhaps, than  in Tai’s bed) is his office, which might not be dark but whose capacity to distract is under Trey’s control. “He was a paperwork junkie, my boyfriend.  He mainlined tedium like it was heroin.”  Mathematics also plays a large part in Trey’s responses and his decisions about how to act and what he can do.  When his employer asks him if he can do something by nine a.m. the next morning, Trey “did the math. ‘I can do that.’”  But when asked for immediate responses, he demurs. “Trey didn’t do instant decisions,” explains Tai. “His decisions required hours of sifting, sorting, integrating, charting.”  What he usually wants from Tai is that she be “sensible”—obviously in the previous two books, she hasn’t been—and so when she advises him of something she is going to do on her own, that is, without his company and protection, “Trey did the rapid calculation, factoring in all the various ways I could screw things up, multiplying that by the probability that I would, divided by the potential information coming my way.  The verdict? Probably sensible.”  Finally, like Dupin, when doing his calculations, Trey’s face is often blank, even frigid at times when others would reveal themselves in their visible body language and expressions. 
     For Tai there is a frightening aspect to Trey’s calculations.  Although she knew he had been part of a SWAT team, she is surprised and upset to discover he had also been a sniper. For Tai can imagine a crime of passion, unpremeditated, happening when a person lost control and without thinking reached for a weapon. “And then, bam, you’re a murderer.” But for a sniper, “putting a bullet between someone’s eyes was logical, the end result of an equation.”  But Trey had given up being a sniper, and he had done this before the accident, after which he wouldn’t have been allowed to be one.  At first Tai thinks he regretted having killed someone, but it turns out that this was not the case.  After hesitation, Trey decides to tell Tai what happened.  It wasn’t easy for him to talk about the incident that made the change, but his doing so is a step in his willingness to summon up his own experiences and feelings and to share them with her. More than once in the book he tells her that something he does not specify is coming to the surface, and it is clear that this alarms him.
     The intellectual battles between Tai and Trey almost pale before the physical ones with which B, A & B  begins. Throughout the book the theme of warfare joins the story of Tai and Trey to that of the south. Trey is Tai’s martial arts instructor and they are both introduced to the reader engaged in another simulated physical battle. It won’t take long, however, for Whittle’s readers to recognize how erotically charged their fighting is, and so it will come as no surprise that Trey is also Tai’s lover.  Even the imagery that Whittle employs to make such a connection reinforces it.  During Tai’s training by Trey, he makes a surprise move that lands her on her back, while suddenly “the world somersaulted—wheel and whirl and reel and tumble.”  Although her head hit the mat with a thud, Tai,  not at all distressed; about the seeming attack, says, “Omigod, you have to teach me that.” Later, when their lovemaking is described, Trey, says Tai, “lowered me backward—inexorable, irresistible, a force of nature,” and soon “there was thrumming in my head, and it spread like fever with every red beat of my traitorous heart.” Why traitorous? During their simulated fighting, Tai makes a move that renders her vulnerable to harm from her opponent. Trey tells her that when she gets close enough to her opponent to attack, she is also too close to defend herself.  And this is true in Tai’s response to Trey: there are certain things essential to her, such as her independence and ability to act free of his over-protectiveness, and she will block his attempts to control her. But when caught up in her attraction to him, she is in fact vulnerable, finding it difficult to resist him.
     One of the names supposedly given to the Civil War—or so tourists are told--is the War for Southern Independence.  And, again, independence is something that Tai insists on and Trey resists, partially because she has a history of endangering herself where crimes are involved (there are, remember, two previous books in the series). At the opening of the book when they are practicing the moves he is teaching her, she wants to spar with him. Sparring is a unifying theme in B, A & B, but it has different frames of reference.   Sparring can be a term familiar to those practicing martial arts. It involves a limited combat, almost ritualized, in which the fighting between two people is constrained by certain rules and defensive stances. Sparring in this sense is also what reenactments of battles between northerners and southerners are reduced to.  Obviously, in the re-enactments, no one is to be hurt or killed, although it is possible to wonder how, with the fired-up emotions involved in the playacted battles, injuries can be avoided.  Sparring can also refer to what takes place between two opponents in a debate, especially when word play becomes a weapon but no serious breech between the verbal antagonists is intended. And sparring also can reflect the manipulations of two people who are trying to work out a relationship that involves each one defending his or her own position, resisting the others’ attempt to challenge it. When Tey cuts short a phone call because, as she tells the other party, she wants to seduce her boyfriend, she is not just looking forward to a sensually pleasurable experience, but is also using tactics to heal a breach between her and Trey. Part of the mystery at the heart of B, A and B is not only whodunit, who perpetrated the theft of the Bible and the resulting murders, but how Tai and Trey are going to work through their conflicts. These are conflicts likely to be continued in further books in Whittle’s Tai Randolph series, enticing readers to find out.
     Wars begin for many reasons.  And negotiations to prevent it break down because the opposing parties do not trust each other. Trust is a major theme in B, A & B and it extends to many of its narrative motifs. Within those wars within wars that Tai perceives, several people who know each other are after the stolen Bible, and of course they cannot and do not trust each other, whatever assurances are offered. Hope, faced with her crimes and own subterfuge, complains that another character she was conspiring with had gone “behind her back.” And by blaming him, she reveals her own lack of trustworthiness. People who buy Civil War memorabilia have to trust the vendors of their hopefully bono fide purchases are authentic, for not all objects can be authenticated.  Those whose purchases are major do get authenticators to guarantee that they are not being scammed, but they must trust their authenticators, and there are so many scams that to do so requires real trust. At one point, Tai agrees to track down the stolen Bible for her ex-boyfriend, whom she has very little reason to trust, but in the end she takes on the job because of a potential finder’s fee—for  she needs the money.  Looking into his assurance that deaths of uncertain cause are not attached to the Bible, she finally agrees.  When Trey once again doubts that she is being sensible, she retorts, “in the end, it’s not about proof. It’s about trust.” 
     Tourists must trust tour guides if they prefer the reality to the stories, which few of them do. And all the characters must trust their eyes if they want to experience their being transported back in time. Toward the end of the mystery, when Tai is at a Black and White Ball, the climax of the Expo to which those invited must arrive dressed as they would have been in the pre-war south.  Tai describes what she is looking at:
     The ball swirled around us, glamour and illusion weaving itself into a tapestry. 
     Appearances deceived, half-revealed, half-revealing.  Real swords, fake uniforms,
     the sheen of the surface. Nobody ever looked below the surface.  Nobody ever
     wanted to.
     The most important elements of trust have, of course, to do with Tai’s and Trey’s relationship.  And trust between them exists on two levels.  On the first, Trey does not trust Tai to be sensible in her actions, and is over-protective and overbearing.  At one point he questions her closely about whether she was hiding from him information she had gotten about the original owner of the Bible, who had in fact died of natural causes, and Tai becomes annoyed.  She watches him reading her expression and snaps, “Cut it out, Trey. Trust me or don’t trust me, but kill the lie detector routine.”  On her side, Tai has to trust that Trey will always honor his promise to be there for her when she needs him.  This trust, however, requires that she understands that her boyfriend Trey and her protector are not quite the same person.  When she faces physical danger, perhaps loss of her life, it is the ex-cop, the ex-sniper, who can save her.  She wanted comfort and assurance from her boyfriend, but “this was the Trey I needed, this one with the clipped words and the cold eyes.  He would be the one to get me out of this, not my boyfriend.  He was the one I had to trust.  And so I did.”
     On a second and more subtle level, both Tai and Trey must trust their own and each other’s emotions and motives, and neither is quite ready to do that.  Tai wonders if Trey’s attachment to her (she is afraid to call it love) is not a function of his poor judgment and that when his brain has recovered some of what Whittle describes as its “executive control” (see interview below), he will discover that he feels different.  She must also trust him to give her the space, the independence she needs, and she doubts that she can count on this, for when he thinks she is not being sensible, he backs off from his agreement to stop being over-protective. One time, they engage in a verbal fight, a real not a simulated one, and Tai thinks, the “last thing I needed was a lover’s spat with my pissed-off, chemically unstable powder keg of a boyfriend.” On Trey’s side, he must not only trust Tai to be sensible, but also his own feelings, which still leave him defenseless when what he needs at present are all the defenses he can muster to deal with his injuries and major changes in his life. 
     By the end of B, A & B, Tai and Trey have made progress in trusting each other and trusting themselves.  But they are not yet where they should be.  And Tina Whittle’s readers can anticipate how this will affect them in subsequent books in the Tai Randolph series and can look forward to finding out. 
                                                 End of Essay
                                     An Interview with Tina Whittle
B.L. Most of my questions will be about Trey, so perhaps this is a good place for you
to talk about Tai. How did you conceive of your series? In what way do you think you
resemble Tai? Who were your literary influences as you began to write? And what
challenges did you face writing the fourth Tai Randolph mystery, and expect to face if
you write a fifth?
T. W: As a character, Trey came first, but once I had him on paper, I knew he could
never tell his own story. Also, I knew I wanted to write an amateur sleuth series,
preferably from a Southern female point of view, and he didn’t fit into those plans. So I
started thinking about how I might combine these two characters into one series. And so
my co-protagonists came together.
     We’re kissing cousins, Tai and I. Both daughters of the South, both a little
uncomfortable in urban environments. We both love stories, especially folklore and
ghost tales and historical narratives, and (like Thoreau) we both are suspicious of any
endeavor that requires new clothes. Tai and I both went to college, and even though
she never turned her classwork into a degree, she is a well-educated, well-read and
intelligent woman even if she cultivates a rough-around-the-edges demeanor. We
both like Flannery O’Connor, Mark Twain, and the poetry of Sidney Lanier. And — as
mentioned elsewhere— I devoured Edgar Allan Poe while still in elementary school. Tai
and I both share a love of the macabre, the gothic, the eccentric, the unreliable, and the
bitingly humorous.
     We’re very different people, however. She’s brash and bold and energetic; I’m quiet.
She’s quick, sometimes to the point of recklessness; I am slow and methodical. She’s
also brave, and tough, and street-smart, willing to wade into situations where most
people would hesitate. I’d never be able to keep up with her, but if I got in trouble, she’d
be the friend I called.
     I have just finished the first draft to the fourth book in the series — tentatively titled
Deeper Than The Grave — and I’m looking forward to the fifth. My greatest challenge
is getting all the backstory in. Many of my readers — like you — have joined me in
midstream, and I don’t want to confuse them with all the details of what has gone before,
but I also don’t want to bore people who began with the first book with a lot of “as
you know, Bob” explanations. Each mystery is self-contained and standalone, but the
developmental arc for Tai and Trey and their relationship is carries through the series.
And that is just getting warmed up.
B.L.: It is clear that you know more about Trey, his injury and its effects, than you could
incorporate into your mystery. Did you do research on the subject of brain trauma? Or
draw on knowledge you already had?
T.W.: Trey’s life on paper began with an article in Scientific American on aphasic stroke
victims, how certain types of brain damage made people more skilled than average at
being able to tell when others were lying. I thought, my, what an interesting detective
such a character would make! And he has — but the research load is enormous!
     Right now I’m researching the difference between top brain processing and lower brain processing. I’ve previously researched right frontal lobe damage, executive function, cognitive therapy, PTSD . . . the list goes on! Luckily, I find it fascinating in its own right.
As the owner/operator of a human brain, I like to learn as much about that grey wrinkled
mass between my ears as I can.
B.L. It would have been mechanical for you to explain in any detail Trey’s injuries
to your reader, to tell rather than show. But perhaps you can explain here what has
happened to Trey as the result of his brain injuries.
T.W.: Trey suffered injury to his right frontal labe, the seat of judgment and executive
control. What this means is that he lost a lot of his decision-making ability. His
instinctive processes work fine—fight or flight, for example, and gross motor skills. He
uses these strong points as coping mechanisms for his weaknesses. He has emotions
(some readers think he doesn’t, but he does, strong and sometimes confusing ones).
What executive control does is let all these different areas communicate with each other
so that we can make good choices about our actions. Trey is very good at planning,
organization, follow-through on a preconceived plan. He’s good at templates. He is
good at doing what he’s always done, at routine responses. He is good at picking up
overt cues and creating a strategy. What he’s not good at anymore is forming a response
to novel situations, especially emotional ones, in an appropriate manner. Or rather he can
form responses—what he’s not so good at is choosing which one is most appropriate. It’s
why he prefers to let Tai take the lead romantically, waiting for her to initiate intimate
conversation, dates, sexual gesture. It’s the best way he can be sure that he’s behaving
appropriately. He can act on his emotions—and does—but when he uses his brain to
make those judgments, it’s a jumble. When he uses his instincts to act emotionally—
as in anger, or sexual arousal, which are very similar body states chemically, at least in
the initial phases—he can be too aggressive, too direct, to completely disengaged from
rational thought (which is difficulty all humans share, this kind of neuronal override—
hence crimes of passion—but Trey’s brain damage exacerbates this challenge for him).
     He often presents what’s called “flat affect” which means he doesn’t show his
emotions in his expressions, which can create the impression that a person is non-
emotional or non-reactive. His misreads social clues (like how much personal distance
to maintain). He tends to perseverate in times of stress—get intensely focused on one
activity or idea and refuse to let go of it.
B.L.: Has Trey changed since his accident. If so, in what way? Is Trey lost to himself?
That is, has Trey lost his sense of himself as a person? How could he regain it?
T.W.: He lost a big portion of his identity in the accident because he lost his place in
society. Without that executive control, he can’t be a cop anymore. He still has all the
protocols and procedures in his head, and tends to fall back on them when confronted
with certain situations. But he’s a civilian now, and he knows it intellectually even when
his previous training asserts himself.
     One thing I know about him that I haven’t yet explored fully in the books—but I’m
getting around to it—is the question you ask: is he lost to himself? Sort of. One thing
Tai is figuring out is that pre-accident Trey was a chameleon—very good at being exactly
who everybody needed him to be. Very adaptive, very good at sussing out the correct
response. When he lost his executive function, he lost that ability. So the big secret is
that despite how different he seems to those who knew him before, this Trey is the real
Trey; he seems different because he’s incapable of formulating this kind of adaptive
identity anymore. Confronted with that loss, he came up with a clever strategy—he just
assumed a static identity from a magazine. It serves as a container (complete with a black
and white uniform) until he can figure out who he really is since he’s never had to do
that in his whole life, preferring instead to fit into different pre-created societal roles with
clear rules (cop, jock, Catholic SWAT). Tai wonders in Book Four how self-aware he
is of what he’s doing—the answer is very much aware. But not ready to give it up yet.
Because it’s working (which he tells her in the first book).
B.L.: Tai both understands and does not quite understand Trey. She can read his
facial expressions and anticipate some of his actions, but much about Trey remains a
mystery to Tai. Perhaps to you as well. This is a delicate balancing act. How did you
achieve it?
T.W.: Yes, Tai and I work as a team to figure Trey out as we go along. She’s better than
I at intervening when he starts to shut down — if he gets annoyed at me, he just walks
off the page — but we both understand that he’s still terra incognita in many ways.
The more I read about neuroscience and cognitive biology, the more I understand the
nuts and bolts of his behavior. But his identity — the ghost in the machine, if you will
— is forever one step ahead of complete understanding. But such it is with all human
relationships, yes? I think Tai and Trey’s story is a familiar one to anyone who has been
truly intimate with another person, because true intimacy relies as much on the mystery
as it does the revelation.
B.L.: As you say in the book, Trey is sometimes employed as much for his mysterious,
enigmatic quality as his skills. How did you keep him from upstaging Tai, your main
character. Did this become a problem for you?
T.W.: It is a challenge, yes. The majority of my mail from readers is Trey-focused (the
most common question I get is, “Is he real?” to which I always answer, “I’ll ask him the
next time I see him.” )
     I am always delighted to see a review or letter with praise for Tai, because I think
she’s equally as awesome. Which is why I like first-person point of view. I like her voice,
very much, and letting the reader experience the story this way — as if this smart,
unassuming, funny-as-hell woman were telling it to you over a beer — keeps Tai very
much in the limelight.
     I’ve actually turned this real dilemma into a fictional theme by making Tai (and her
amateur sleuthing) the focus of local newspapers and bloggers, much to Trey’s chagrin
since he also gets caught in the spotlight. This allows me a bit of creative pleasure in
that I get to quote actual reviews — Kirkus tends to call Trey a “dreamboat” — as if they
were occurring in my fictional universe. We writers love that kinda stuff.
B.L.: You have described both a very complex person and also a phantom, almost one
of T. S. Eliot’s hollow men? Can Tai negotiate her way between those two possibilities
and maintain her relationship with Trey? What kind of challenge does this potential
problem create for you in the next books in your Tai Randolph series? Is Tai capable of
helping Trey fill his “container” with something real and substantive? And should this be
her role?
TW: I think Tai is up to the challenge — one of the things she’s figuring out, as Trey
shows her piece by piece of his identity, is that some of the pieces are real and some
constructed, some are subconscious and some conscious, some Trey understands,
some he doesn’t. He doesn’t have the vocabulary to explain — all he can do is show
her. And, bless her heart, so far she’s handled everything he’s dealt her, even the things
that frighten her (and that frighten and baffle him as well). And even more importantly,
she’s not attached to the things that Trey uses as scaffolding — the Ferrari, the luxury
apartment, the Armani — the shiny obvious things that other people mistake for his
     You asked a very interesting question, however — should this be her role? I certainly
don’t think it should be her primary one — one of her defining qualities for both good
and ill is her fierce independence. So the larger question then becomes — can you
need someone, or allow someone to fulfill your needs, and maintain your independence.
And if so, how?
     I am interested in this from the vice-versa perspective too — despite Trey’s cognitive
limitations, there are some things he’s very good at that Tai isn’t. Trey believes in
promises and showing up for people; he provides an unconditional net of support that
Tai didn’t have as a child. Plus, he’s helping her come to realize something she’s afraid
to approach head-on — that her gun shop is really just a container too, that what she
really wants to do is be a private detective. Of course, this isn’t exactly good news for
him, but he sees it, very clearly.
     My challenge as a writer is to show their complementary natures as they create a
romantic relationship — to give them moments of satisfaction and achievement —
without ever losing the spark of conflict that keeps them interesting. Tai likes being
challenged, as does Trey. They both have a competitive streak. I can’t see them ever
settling down into a complacent, steady existence. Luckily for me, I’m writing mysteries — there’s always a fresh corpse around the next corner for them to argue about.

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