By Gary Kriss
OK, here’s the question: whadda you get when you mix together a death by cattle stampede, a three-shot suicide, a love child, a secret city and two medical examiners threatening law enforcement with firearms?
Get it right and there’s a bonus.
Hint: it’s not an episode of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.”
But the latest episode of “Keeping Up With Diane Fanning,” called by some “the Queen of Real Life Crime Writing”—ah, that’s a different story, one that’s darkly detailed in HER DEADLY WEB just out from St. Martins.
The book revolves around Raynella Dossett Leath, convicted two years ago in the 2003 murder of her second husband David Leath. (The three-shot suicide, except that medical examiners determined the second shot killed him.). She had also been charged with the 1992 murder of her first husband, Ed Dossett, the district attorney general of Knox County, TN. (The stampede by a raging herd of milk cows, except that a later investigation showed that it was morphine rather than moo that did him in.)
“The initial draw for me was her first husband,” Fanning says of why she chose this case to write about. “Just how does a prosecutor become a victim? The second was: how does a person get away with killing a spouse long enough to kill another one?”
The answer lies in the book, the eleventh in Fanning’s true crime corpus, which dates back to 2003 when St. Martin published THROUGH THE WINDOW, about serial killer Tommy Lynn Sells. Fanning selected the cases, which includes that of Casey Anthony recounted in MOMMY’S LITTLE GIRL, published last year, not necessarily because they were “sensational,” but because they raise “a question to which I do not have an answer.”
This was especially true with the case of author Michael Peterson, convicted of killing his wife, Kathleen, which Fanning chronicled in WRITTEN IN BLOOD. “I was fascinated that a New York Times best-selling novelist would not find a more creative solution to his problems than killing his wife,” she says. “I was stunned that a strong, intelligent woman like Kathleen became a victim in her own home.” Peterson is currently awaiting a retrial.
Right now Fanning is putting the finishing touches on her next true-crime case, MURDER ON THE HOMEFRONT, which, she says, deals with “Julie Schenecker, the woman inTampawho shot her two teenagers and told police that she did it because they were ‘mouthy’.” She expects to turn the book in at the end of February and that it will be published about a year from now.
That will delight her enormous fan base, which she calls “very dedicated to true crime book reading.” She says that “with each book, I pick up additional loyal readers who have never read the genre before but stay to read all of my books.”
It will also energize her detractors, something she inevitably runs into with each true-crime book. Fanning accepts this, but notes that often “the criticism is the result of inaccurate information about the contents of the book, my motivation or my actions.”
Indeed, Fanning said that if she was a song, it would be “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by Eric Burden and the Animals with its line, “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good, oh, Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
“I am constantly finding people who ascribe their own less-than-noble motives to me and their own selfish reactions to me when I might just be coming from an entirely different, and often more caring, place,” Fanning explains. “Of course the up-side is that some attribute really lofty reasons to things I’ve done out of nothing more than instinct. But overall, I do think I’d come out ahead, if people would just accept my words and actions at face value.”
“Although constructive criticism is a wonderful gift,” she continues, “reviews written or comments made by the mean-spirited, envy-oriented, negative-hearted folks out there are not worth a single moment’s anxiety or an ounce of despair. I wasted a lot of time agonizing over them before understanding it for what it was.”
Then there’s the criticism from husband, Wayne, father of her three children and her first reader, is a different matter. “He has a knack for being a vocal cheerleader while, at the same time, also being my most intense critic when a passage, scene or character is missing something essential,” she says. “He does read in progress and he’s feedback is invaluable to keeping me on track as I move toward completion.”
Some of that feedback may deal with her “overpopulating a story with too many people,” which she says is her weakest suit as a writer, adding that “after my first drafts, I always have to consolidate or eliminate characters.”
That’s balanced out by what Fanning sees as her strongest suit, being “a natural story-teller who has loved to entertain any audience even before I knew the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment.” (Nor does it necessarily matter that she now knows the difference. “Technically complete sentences are not always appropriate, in my opinion,” Fanning says. “Sometimes the perfect sentence is nothing more than a word or phrase.”)
There is, however, another side to Diane Fanning, the outgoing woman who has a thing for pear-melon martinis but sees herself as a Bloody Mary “for all the obvious reasons and because I am dependable, a little spicy and too much time in my company could leave your head spinning.”
It’s a side that dwells deep in all those obvious reasons she mentions, a that doesn’t report on heinous murders but instead commits them, then leaves it for Lucinda Pierce, a homicide detective who’s been described as “a bad ass with a sweet side,” to sort through and clean up the mess. Fanning’s already done this four times and she’s ready to strike again.
“I am also writing WRONG TURN, a new book in the Lucinda Pierce series in which the Lieutenant realizes she played a role in the wrongful conviction of another woman a few years earlier,” Fanning says.
That’s right. The Edgar Award finalist for true-crime writing double dips her pen, creating fiction as well. WRONG TURN, which Fanning expects will be finished in April and released before year’s end, will mark the fifth appearance of Pierce, who happens to live and work in Virginia, where Maryland-born Fanning attended college and spent a portion of her adult life before moving toTexas. (Even though she claims she’s a proud Texan, when pressed Fanning owns up to preferring “good old Carolina shredded pork barbecue” over the Lone Star State’s sliced beef brisket barbecue.)
But writing ain’t barbecue, so Fanning doesn’t have to pick a favorite. “I truly love writing both fiction and non-fiction,” Fanning says. “Fiction, however, is a lot easier because everything you do is within your own control. With true crime, the ending has to be what it is. With fiction, I can kill anyone I want.”
Nor, she insists, does she have a problem switching between the two genres, something she attributes either to being a Gemini or being “nuts.” In fact, she sees the benefit of her divided loyalties.
“I believe my non-fiction has benefited greatly from my fiction, giving it a stronger sense of story and tools for building suspense as well as improving my ability to characterize real people,” Fanning explains. “My crime fiction has been the recipient of a wealth of knowledge from the real world as well as a lot of connections in the investigative and forensic worlds who help me with tricky questions in my stories.”
And since she likes finding out things, what, if anything, have the two genres taught Fanning about herself?
“From my non-fiction I learned that you are not defenseless—you can make decisions and take actions that make you less likely to become a victim,” she says. “That gives me a lot more self-confidence about my own personal safety as well as a lot more awareness of life’s pitfalls. From my fiction, I have learned that persistence and determination do win the day—I can accomplish anything if I want it enough.”
One thing Fanning’s non-fiction and fiction share is her own passion for causes such as social justice, some of which stems from her earlier career working for non-profit agencies. While she doesn’t broadcast it in her writing, it still comes through.
“In my opinion, every true crime story naturally carries its own lessons, messages, warnings,” Fanning notes. “I might shine a spotlight on them but don’t really attempt to point to them within the story itself but reserve that for the afterword of my books. My attempt to personally understand the why of a crime is a conduit for learning and becoming more aware of the complexities of social issues.”
And with respect to her fiction, Fanning says that “the springboard for a plot has been, very often, an issue that is on the top of my mind at the time, like domestic violence, suicide, wrongful conviction, or caring for elderly with dementia.”
Those views are consistent with a woman “who strives daily to be a better writer, a more compassionate human and a more critical thinker.”
“I simply want to keep trying to achieve perfection in each goal without ever completely reaching it,” she continues. “A life without challenges simply is not worth living.”
Given this, what does Diane Fanning want on her tombstone?
“Damn, girl, why didn’t you start writing sooner?”
And now for that bonus:
For those of you who would kill for the best way to dispatch a person—in fiction, of course—a few tips on how to commit the perfect, undetectable murder from the Queen herself.
First, avoid the obvious, no matter how tempting. “I would never kill anyone who had a life insurance policy with me as the beneficiary—that’s just asking for trouble,” Fanning says.
Then there’s the method itself. “I suppose I’d use a simple, common household product or garden plant to poison the victim—one that could appear to have been accidentally self-administered,” she confessed. “When I wrote the true crime book about Casey Anthony, I was gob smacked to learn how easy it was to make chloroform in your kitchen. Your home—anyone’s home is teeming with lethal possibilities.”
And here’s the good part: if you try it for real, instead on the printed page, you’ll still end up with a book.
Only Diane Fanning will write it.
Diane Fanning is the Edgar-nominated crime writer of six mystery novels and eleven true crime books. She has received the Defender of the Innocent award from the Downstate Illinois Innocence Project and the Freedom Fighter award for her work in the non-profit sector. She has appeared on The Today Show, 48 Hours, 20/20, Biography, Justice with Judge Jeanine and numerous shows on MSNBC, E! and Investigation Discovery networks. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she lived in Virginia for two decades before settling in New Braunfels, Texas.
To learn more about Diane, please visit her website.