The story behind Bitter River by Julia Keller

We stood at the edge of the river, as steadfast in our places as chess pieces before the onset of a game. I remember the details with a clarity undiminished by the intervening years: the massed green foliage on the bank; the chocolate-brown gush of the river, its velvety surface enlivened by all those luscious wrinkles and folds; and the top of the car, the only part of it still visible, a light gray metal rectangle around which the water bobbed and sloshed.

     I was a twenty-two-year-old newspaper reporter. Early that morning my editor had heard a report on the police scanner about a car found in the river. He sent me to watch and wait—just in case. Just in case there happened to be a dead body in that car, at which point the story would jump from nothing to Potentially Interesting. If the deceased person happened to have been famous or young—youth being, after celebrity, the attribute most coveted by reporters in their crime victims, to attain maximum poignancy—then I would be in business. I was working on the first paragraph of my story in my head even before the police tow truck arrived to fetch the car from the drink (“In the shadow of the massed green foliage on the bank, the chocolate-brown gush of the river . . . “) because I fancied myself a bit of a poet. I dreamed of turning life’s tragedies into searing, pungent prose. On deadline, no less. I was the newest hire at the paper, and I had something to prove.

     And so we waited. Me and my colleague, a photographer named Jeff, and three police officers. Finally the tow truck driver arrived, and we stood transfixed as he waded a short distance into the water, hooked the car with his cruel-looking apparatus, and returned to the truck to work the levers that would magically lift the vehicle.

     No one spoke, which was odd; typically, such moments are punctuated by the macabre wisecracks in which journalists and police officers specialize. But on this day, it was quiet. The car rose higher and higher by steady increments, like a caught fish being dramatically proffered by a proud angler.

     The officers slowly moved forward. There was no reason for haste; if there were a body inside, that body would be long dead.

     The car was empty. We all exhaled. Jeff, the photographer, uttered a mild profanity, signaling his disappointment. We returned to the office. Waste of a day, I thought.

     Or not. Years later, the scene still haunted me, as did the prospect of another outcome altogether: Had there been a waterlogged corpse in that car, the quiet, calm riverbank would have exploded into the chaos of a potential crime scene. All hell would have broken loose.

     As I prepared to write the follow-up novel to my debut mystery, “A Killing in the Hills” (2012), I recalled that fraught moment as we watched the car being hoisted aloft. That became the first scene in “Bitter River”—only this time, of course, in my made-up story, there is a body in the car. A promising young woman named Lucinda Trimble, we learn, was murdered before her vehicle was pushed into the river.

     But by whom, and why?

     I like to think of fiction as just that: As something that might have happened—but didn’t. That is, it must be as plausible as the actual stuff and goings-on of life, right down to the bus schedules and the dirty dishes and the plumber’s visit, but remain imaginary. Novelist John Fowles once wrote that fiction’s job is to “create a world as real as, but other than, the world that is.” I love that definition. And it seems especially apt for crime fiction. Plots must have a clockwork logic at their core; characters must behave in ways commensurate with the motives and actions of real people; the science must be accurate. I complained once to a friend, a so-called “literary novelist” (hated term, reeking as it does of snobbery) that she and her pampered brethren have it easy. All they have to do is string together pretty sentences. A crime novelist, however, must create those felicitous phrases and come up with a delicious plot that will puzzle, flummox, baffle, mystify, intrigue—and then, when the ending is finally revealed, satisfy. It must work. Agatha Christie was the master of this, of course; her endings make you want to exclaim two sentences at exactly the same moment: “Crikey—I would never in a million years have thought that person was the culprit!” and “But of course—it could not have been otherwise!”

     My years as a journalist were crucial to my fiction-writing. In fact, the reason I sought employment at a newspaper in the first place was to provide the raw material for fiction. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in English Literature—I’ve never had a journalism course in my life—but from the start, my goal was to get to know the world and its darker corners well enough to write about them. And I was determined to write about something other than my own experiences; I am simpatico with the poet Robert Lowell, who once explained, “I want to make something imagined, not recalled.” The best way of living dozens of different lives, I believed, was to be a journalist. Other fiction writers have used the same trick: Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, Katherine Anne Porter, Thornton Wilder, Pete Hamill. Among contemporary crime fiction writers, the list includes Michael Connelly, Ruth Rendell and Val McDermid.

     Where does fiction come from? This question is as inevitable as it is unanswerable. We can be forgiven, I think, for eternally wanting to know the source for an author’s work, the arresting image or singular idea or passionate conviction that somehow gave rise to a particular book. When people ask her where she got the idea for one of her stories, novelist Emma Donoghue has been known to reply, “Where do you catch a cold?” Indeed, we can make reasonable guesses—it must have been that sneezing, coughing sickie in the next seat over at the theater!—about the origins of the tales that captivate us as writers, but we can’t ever know for sure. Nor would we want to know for sure. If we know for sure, it isn’t fiction anymore. It’s just a recapitulation of fact.

     The riverbank, the thick green foliage, the shift and the swirl of the dark water: These images, and the memory of the feelings of excitement and dread, in equal measure, that they sparked in me, were the catalysts for what became “Bitter River. “ I wanted to write about love and death, about how what we sometimes call “love” isn’t love at all, but really just self-love, and often obsession. I wanted to explore both the positive and negative aspects of the love between sexual partners, between parents and children, between sisters, between friends.

     And I wanted to do all of this within a mystery—a tale that ideally makes you want to turn the pages very, very fast, on your way to the revelation of the murderer.

     In a sense, being a novelist means that I am still standing on that riverbank, pen and notebook in hand, watching it all, determined to deliver the goods: a detailed chronicle not of what actually happened, but of what might have actually happened, and about all that is set into motion in the wake of a violent crime. There is shock and sorrow. There is outrage and disbelief. There is fury and fear and regret. There is the challenge of the chase and the reckoning of punishment.

     To this writer’s eye, the car is perpetually rising out of the water, and with it come all the secrets and dreams, the hidden sins and forbidden desires.

Julia Keller
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