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December 9, 2019

The Story Behind the Stories by Mark de Castrique, Author of MURDER IN RAT ALLEY


Mark de Castrique is the author of a series of mysteries featuring Iraq War veteran Sam Blackman and his no-nonsense private eye partner, Nakayla Robertson. An interracial couple in the new South, the Asheville, NC pair love their investigations, which always carry a thread from the past. In the seventh installment, MURDER IN RAT ALLEY (which will be in stores December 31st), the Apollo moon missions, mountain music and our nation's weather data collide in their most complex and dangerous case yet. To celebrate the book’s upcoming release, Mark has written a wonderful essay about the inspiration for the series and the significance of William Faulkner’s famous quote in relation to these novels: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
    ― William Faulkner, REQUIEM FOR A NUN

The three rode together down the western North Carolina mountainside in the old truck --- a Model T converted into a hearse. One man was black, a funeral director from Asheville. One man, the driver, and his 10-year-old son were white and from the neighboring town of Brevard. The black man had come to the white man, also a funeral director, desperately seeking help to transport a body to Georgia. All he had were a horse and wagon. None of the white funeral homes in Asheville would help him. So, in 1919, through the heart of the Jim Crow South, the three made an eight-hour trek on a mission of mercy.

Rampant segregation meant no public place where they could eat. Arrangements had to be made with the deceased's relatives for lunch along the journey. At noon, they pulled up to a sharecropper’s cabin. An intergenerational gathering greeted them. The patriarch of the black family led the white man and boy into the cabin’s front room. They saw no furniture except for a plank board table and two chairs. There were only two place settings.

“You and your son will eat first and we will wait out in the yard.”

The pronouncement caught the guests by surprise. “There’s more room at the table,” the white man protested. “Or we can all eat outside.”

“No, sir. You’re doing a favor for our family. This is the way we want to honor you.”

So, the man and his boy sat down and ate while everyone else stood in the dusty yard.

The man who told me this story was 90 years old. He had been that 10-year-old child. His adventure was a haunting indictment of my native South and the historic racism that seems to refuse to die. Also, that 100-year-old lunch is garnished with irony --- the three stopped because they couldn’t eat together, and they wound up not eating together. But what struck me the most was the lesson my elderly friend learned. His father told him later, “Son, sometimes the only thing people have to offer is their hospitality, and you always, always take it.”

His story stuck with me, and I needed to exorcise it somehow. The Faulkner quote has a companion from the last line of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

My friend’s story fit how the past pulls us back as we struggle in vain against its relentless presence. So I created a contemporary story featuring a white Iraqi war veteran and amputee, Sam Blackman, who meets an African-American woman, Nakayla Robertson, whose sister has been murdered. The only clue: a 90-year-old journal written by a boy about his trip with his father as they help a black funeral director transport a body from Asheville to Georgia. Blackman’s Coffin provided the means for me to use the true story as the genesis for a mystery novel.

I was pleased with the result, the reviews were good, but then my editor informed me that I wasn’t finished with Sam Blackman. She knew before I did that Sam had more stories to tell. I decided to continue looking at events in the past that create crimes in the present. The rich history of Asheville, North Carolina, and the surrounding mountains have provided opportunities to use factual events to create fictional consequences. And Sam and Nakayla became an interracial couple and co-owners of The Blackman and Robertson Detective Agency.

Their cases have highlighted F. Scott Fitzgerald's visits to Asheville when Zelda was in psychiatric treatment. They've solved a mystery involving Carl Sandburg's mountain farm and its history dating back to the Confederacy. As an interracial couple, they've faced a killer from the days when such relationships were banned by law, and they've untangled the complexity of crimes motivated by a miscarriage of justice that released a guilty man to prey upon innocents.

My new Sam Blackman novel, MURDER IN RAT ALLEY, features two little-known facts of western North Carolina history: the Apollo Space Program built a tracking station sequestered in Pisgah National Forest that later became a classified Department of Defense secret operating station; and Asheville houses our country’s largest collection of weather data, now so critical in the debate over climate change.

These facts become the fuel of fiction when the skeletal remains of an Apollo-era scientist are unearthed near the site of the tracking station. The nearly half-century cold case flares white-hot as the investigation triggers murderous consequences in the present. The trail leads from the stars to South Vietnam to Asheville’s Rat Alley, putting Sam and Nakayla in jeopardy as they face the reality of Faulkner’s quote, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."