The decades-long sequence of events that led up to the publication of Stephanie Kane’s True Crime Redux is mind-blowing.
Here’s the essence:
A young woman is about to be married. She witnesses key moments in the murder of her fiancé’s mother. An investigation into the murder is launched. The killer is indicted but inexplicably walks.
A couple of decades later, that same woman publishes a mystery novel loosely based on the murder.
A television interview regarding the book leads to a tip.
The murder case is reopened.
And suddenly the witness/author is in the middle of the trial.
And then the author writes an account of the whole fifty-year arc.
That’s True Crime Redux (being published today).
Minus all the important detail.
Stephanie Kane has been a friend for many years. She’s a longstanding, major figure in the Colorado community of crime writers. She was kind enough to answer some questions about True Crime Redux below. A full review of this one-of-a-kind book follows.
True Crime Redux would make for a great movie. Or documentary. Or both. But it’s a heckuva read right now.
Question: Before we get into some of the details in True Crime Redux, it almost seems like this whole experience might have changed the way you think about life? About odds and possibilities? About existence? How hard is to look back on your younger self and wonder about all the choices that put these events in motion?
Stephanie Kane: I’m more fatalistic now, and at the same time more aware of trying to make my time count. I stay away from what-ifs. They just trap you in regrets.
If I hadn’t entered the Frye family, my life would’ve taken a different trajectory. But would I be a different person? I hope not. After much soul-searching, I think the worst thing I did was fall in love with the wrong boy. Because I was looking for someone as different from my family as I could find, that was almost inevitable. Knowing me, I’d probably do it again.
Question: Are you sure you wouldn’t have been a writer of crime fiction without having been so close to the events involving the murder of your (almost) future mother-in-law? Did you have any interest in writing fiction of any kind before that incident in 1973?
Stephanie Kane: I grew up on Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Hour, and still have a shelfful of old Nancy Drews. I was a reader, but I never set my sights on being a writer.
I wrote Quiet Time out of necessity—not economic or aspirational, but the emotional need to come to terms with Betty Frye’s death and what I feared was my role in it. It’s no coincidence Quiet Time and True Crime Redux bookend my writing career. If I could have written True Crime Redux instead of Quiet Time, I would have. But starting out, I didn’t have the facts or the skill.
In personal terms, it’s taken me fifty years to accept myself. Writing helped me do that.
Question: So the murder prompted you to write Quiet Time, but it took a long time to sell the book—correct? I assume there was a fairly long time when you thought, like a lot of writers, that the book might never see the light of day? Can you walk us through the timeline of Quiet Time’s publication because, obviously, if Quiet Time didn’t find a publisher then the cold case never would have been reopened, right? You said “20-odd drafts,” right?
Stephanie Kane: At least 20 drafts, all of which unfortunately were preserved on floppy disks and subject to subpoena when the cold case came around and Quiet Time had a target on its back. But that’s another story.
When I began writing Quiet Time in the early 1990s, all I had were memories of the day Betty was killed and the grand jury transcript of the lead investigator from the 1973 court file. I’d never taken a writing class, so the manuscript became my lab for experimenting with fiction craft. The first drafts were written in the imagined voices of a dozen participants—family members, witnesses, cops. As I gained an appreciation of what was missing in my structure and technique, I started poring through writing books and trying to incorporate what I learned. When the manuscript began to resemble a book, I showed it to friends. Only then did the ambition to publish it arise.
I got a list of agents and queried them. My first agent was on that list. She cut a two-book deal with Bantam, and I wrote Blind Spot, the first Lily Sparks book, to satisfy the requirement of a second book. I basically forgot about the Frye story until I heard from the cold case investigator in 2005.
Question: Also, the odds of one key person watching one interview with you about Quiet Time and that turning into the energy to reopen the case? So many things had to line up to launch the second half of this saga. Can you stop and think about things like this or is it too much?
Stephanie Kane: The cold case was a total surprise. Maybe it shouldn’t have been. Published a week or so after 9/11, Quiet Time itself had a short life and a quick death. But until True Crime Redux, itwas the truest of all my books.
To distance Quiet Time from Betty’s murder, I took Kane, my second husband’s surname, as a pen name. Bantam also made me bump up the timeline ten years (which played havoc with the plot) and change names and details that identified the location. (Colorado was an unnamed state north of New Mexico, which was named.) But somehow it retained a bit of the raw emotion I’d felt. Enough so that, years later when the killer’s sister saw me on an old rerun of a canceled book show on television, she came forward with information about him confessing to the crime.
Question: If you could go back to the original investigation into 1973 (and I know you talk about this in the book) what would you do differently? Do you think anything you could have done then would have changed the outcome from the original case?
Stephanie Kane: Since I was one of the last people to speak with Betty that morning and I was with Duane Frye, my father-in-law-to-be, for more than an hour between the time he killed her and her body was found, you’d think the cops would have asked me some questions. But in 1973, I was just some college girl living with their son. The defense investigator was the only one who interviewed me, and all he asked was what Duane was wearing when I saw him that day.
But your real question is, should I have come forward with what I knew and would it have made a difference? I don’t think so.
In 1973, I was focused on starting a life with the Fryes’ son. To their family, I was an outsider; if I’d volunteered what I knew, our marriage would have been over before the wedding. And I doubt my impressions would have been taken seriously. Only decades later did I realize the significance of what I’d seen: not just the surprise of Betty’s phone call and Duane’s visit to the karate studio that morning, his inappropriate dress on a sweltering day and the bruise on his forehead, but other details which finally made sense when I read his convoluted alibi after the case was over.
Question: How and when did you think about breaking this story down into these short, brisk chapters? How hard was it to pull this together (as a person and as a writer)?
Stephanie Kane: Frankly, it was a relief.
When the cold case was over and I got all the files, I wrote the story as traditional true crime. It attracted a top agent but never sold. Corralling it into a tight linear third-person procedural had leached out the emotion; without texture, it was boring and flat. And let’s face it: a housewife beaten to death in her suburban garage lacked the sensationalism and glitz that fuel most successful true crime stories.
Frustrated, I turned to a blog. I wanted to rediscover the story and make it my own. That meant telling it in first person, which I’d resisted throughout my career. My first agent had warned me that first-person narrators can fall in love with their own voice and run away with the story. So, to compensate for writing in first person, I embraced the discipline of compression: each piece would be written in a 500-800 word box that had to stand on its own. Compression also forced me to say as much as possible in the fewest words, and to stay focused and on track.
Later, when I assembled the posts into an e-book, it was to have them all in one place. I didn’t bother looking for an agent because I was convinced it wouldn’t sell. When I finally read them together, I realized the craft I’d honed in the Jackie Flowers and Lily Sparks books had paid off: each piece was written ad hoc, but without any reorganization they were in a clear dramatic structure. I had to edit out redundancies and add some front matter to make it cohesive, but the structure didn’t change.
Question: Interwoven throughout True Crime Redux are some powerful insights about truth, eyewitnesses, deception, and the whole nature of criminal investigations today. What changed in your writing and plotting from the earlier Jackie Flowers novels to A Perfect Eye, Automat, and Object lessons? Did you find yourself filtering more through the lens of the events in True Crime Redux?
Stephanie Kane: Being a witness in the cold case had a huge effect on my writing and me as a writer. In practical terms, because my drafts, notes, etc. were under threat of subpoena by the defense, for the eight or so years the case wound through the courts, I wrote nothing. Hence, the hiatus between criminal defense lawyer Jackie Flowers and art conservator Lily Sparks. But it affected my work in more profound ways.
When you see how sausage is made, you never eat one again. When I went back to writing, the last thing I wanted to do was put myself in the mind of a defense lawyer. Like me, Lily Sparks has a background as a transactional lawyer, but the Frye case made me cynical about the justice system. I didn’t want to make another fictional heroine participate in it.
And it affected my writing style too. Being a defense target made my writing tougher and leaner. Time has taken on a new meaning. I don’t want to waste my readers’ or mine.
Question: And can you tell us how you found your publisher for True Crime Redux? Does seeing it in print close a circle for you? What are your feelings as you see this book go out in the world, knowing that your creative work impacted so many lives out here in the “real” world?
Stephanie Kane: After being out of the writing world for so long, it was impossible to find an agent—at least not in the time I was willing to spend. I turned to self-publishing, which as you know has its ups and downs. When a friend who’d read the earlier e-version of True Crime Redux offered to send it to her publisher, I jumped at the chance.
Just as coming to terms with who you are is a life’s work, my work as a writer has been to tell this story. Seeing the true version in print does close a circle.
More about Stephanie and all her novels at her website.
If you put the story of True Crime Redux in a novel, they wouldn’t believe you. Editors would shake their heads. Too implausible. Nobody’s going to believe it.
That’s in part because a novel drives the mind-blowing real-world events that lead to the wheels of justice getting back on track in the case of a long-dormant, unsolved murder of a suburban housewife in 1973.
What’s hard to fathom is the author of the novel that reignites the case—a novel that took decades to germinate, write and find publication—came within two weeks of becoming the murder victim’s daughter-in-law. The morning Betty Frye was killed, Stephanie Kane talked to her on the phone. Later that day, Kane saw Betty Frye’s killer. Later that day, she was dead.
Certainly a galvanizing moment. Certainly a day you’re never going to forget. Especially, in part, because the case, at the time, wasn’t closed. Betty’s husband Duane was charged but the charges were later mysteriously dropped.
Care for another wrinkle on the emotional landscape? Young Stephanie thought her arrival on the scene as an outsider forming a new family with the Fryes’ son played a role in the motive for the killing.
About twenty years later, an older Stephanie Kane decides to write a mystery. When Stephanie Kane landed a publisher, the editors were wary. They asked for a series of changes to make sure that no reader would think Stephanie’s novel clung tightly to the reality she witnessed. The editors required Stephanie to move the timeline up ten years. Stephanie even switched her author surname to that of her second husband.
Sure, there were some rough similarities in the book that became Quiet Time to the events young Stephanie Shafer witnessed, but by the time it was published it had been 30 years since the murder and, well, it was fiction. (A line from the book’s description: “Sari Siegel is engaged to Tim Scott when his mother is found murdered. Sari barely knows the Scotts, but even she can sense the terrible secrets that seethe below the surface.”)
Quiet Time came out one week after 9/11. As Kane has said in interviews, “I was done with Quiet Time, but it wasn’t done with me.”
That’s because the sister of Duane Frye watched a rerun of a late-night defunct book show on public television that included an interview with Kane. And that sister, then 78 years old, relayed that Duane Frye had confessed to the murder. That opened a cold case and, suddenly, Quiet Time was in the crosshairs of the legal defense team. Why? Because Duane Frye’s lawyers tried to prove it was factual lies instead of fiction and subpoenaed all of Kane’s notes, correspondence and some 20 drafts of the novel under the theory that Kane and Duane’s sister had fabricated the confession in order to sell more books.
“My drafts, etc. were eventually protected, but the subpoena made me question what I’d done to real people to exorcise my own ghosts. I’d published three legal thrillers since Quiet Time, but the threat of having my creative processes scrutinized paralyzed me. For the eight years the case was in court, I wrote not a word,” Kane writes in the introduction to True Crime Redux.
Can you imagine being Stephanie Kane, back in court with Duane Frye staring you down?
Well, that brings us to True Crime Redux, Kane’s sterling account of how the real world inspired fiction that altered events in, yes, the real world.
True Crime Redux deconstructs these improbable events into 70 nugget-size chapters within 13 sections—Preface, 1973, The Scene, Statements, Collateral Damage, The Right Man, The Right Woman, 2005, The Cold Case, The Family, The Courtroom, Shooting the Survivors, and Coda. The book takes a kaleidoscopic look from all angles, breaking down events that spanned more than 40 years into manageable nuggets. Kane comes at the story with a cool kind of distance, but confronts her own emotions and role, as well, when needed.
In fact, True Crime Redux doesn’t lend itself to easy quotes, but here’s a sample of Kane’s matter-of-fact and engaging style.
“I met Doug at a karate studio in Boulder, Colorado. I’d applied to CU because it was 2000 miles from Brooklyn. But the moment the plane landed, I was in over my head. The dry wind, blazing sky, and strapping kids playing frisbee on a campus backed by mountain peaks felt unreal, like a Technicolor movie. I wandered into a karate studio and watched my future husband, Doug, throwing one perfect kick after another. With his crisp white gi and sun-streaked hair, he embodied everything foreign and exotic about Colorado. We moved in together that summer. And that fall he brought me home to meet his parents.”
There are twists and turns in the case around the original 1973 murder investigation, there are dramatic ebbs and flows as the cold case is pursued starting in 2005. The wheels of justice spin and sputter. It’s easy to see why all the legal grinding took its toll on Kane’s creative work.
In writing True Crime Redux, Kane sees her role in it but also tries to view the tale as a dispassionate outsider, too. It’s a tall order, but Kane pulls it off looking hard at all the evidence and thinking about all the ways one vicious crime gets distorted by time, by the fallibility of memory, and by the involvement of human beings who have a “gnawing need for answers.”
There are lots of quotes out there about comparing fiction and reality, but they all stem from Lord Byron’s assertion: “Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction.” In the case of True Crime Redux, “truth” needed a boost from fiction but Lord Byron sure wasn’t wrong.