Back on an October night in 2001, a lovely young woman named Amy St. Laurent went out on a Saturday night to show a visitor from Florida around the Old Port area of Portland, Maine. After an evening playing pool and dancing, she disappeared. My friend Joe Loughlin, who was a police lieutenant, headed the investigation in that case and very early on, he told me it was different from any case he’d worked in his 20+ years on the job because of the way the detectives got attached to Amy.
Because of that attachment, and the relentless and dedicated way both Portland detectives and Maine State Police sought Amy’s missing body and were determined to get her justice, he wanted to write about it. I volunteered to help, and that led to a collaboration, and a writing process, that took two and a half years before we were done. The book took that long because unlike with fiction where the author is entirely in control, true crime needs an ending, and that ending is generally the conviction of the perpetrator and the end of any subsequent appeals.
It was an honor to tell Amy’s story, and a character-developing process for me to learn to collaborate on a book. It was also fascinating and challenging to learn how to write nonfiction where I am ruled by the facts and the characters are real, and will likely read the book, instead of inhabiting the world of fiction where I can make my characters do what I want them to do, and end the book when I’m ready.
When Joe and I were done with our collaboration, though, I was done with nonfiction. It was too hard and took too long, and it was terrible to spend so much time with real victims in my head. That resolution to leave nonfiction behind lasted until our launch party, when the Maine game warden, Lt. Pat Dorian, who had organized the search for Amy’s body grinned and said, “When you’re ready, Kate, I’ve got another one for you.”
“Another one,” involved five years, two first degree murder trials, numerous appeals, and a cynical New York agent who told me not to write it because “no one was going to be interested in reading about a small Canadian crime.” That small Canadian crime is chronicled in Death Dealer: How cops and cadaver dogs brought a killer to justice. And thinking about Death Dealer brings me, at last, to the point of this blog—that writing the real, because it involves real people and real victims, can be an astonishing experience.
Something I set out to do, in both Finding Amy and Death Dealer was to share some of the times when the cops get it right. While the news is full of stories suggesting the police get it wrong, treat people badly, screw up and shoot when they don’t have to, fail to shoot the weapon from the bad guy’s hands like in an old western, and generally are a bunch of bad actors, there’s another side that’s rarely seen. In these books, I’ve been privileged to get inside investigations and hear about the strategies, the interviews, the deadends and frustrations of working with people who won’t tell the truth. I’ve been lucky enough to get close to the investigative process so that I can take readers there and let them look right over the detective’s shoulders as they work to solve cases. I’ve learned about training search and rescue and cadaver dogs by going to their trainings, watching them in action, and getting to be a victim lost in the woods.
Most surprising, perhaps, are these two things. First, getting to share an intimate glimpse of the police officer’s life, and work, with their families and friends, who often aren’t aware of what is really going on during an intense investigation. It has been astonishing, with the publication of this second true crime, to hear from my police characters about the reactions from their families. Second, this book lets me, and the investigators and the victims’ brave family and friends to give something back to the victims, so the world can understand why they were so loved and how they are still missed.