Remarkable Characters Tell a Story
of Family and Secrets
“There’s a body on the Gurney Street tracks. Female, age unclear, probable overdose, says the dispatcher.”
The narrator of LONG BRIGHT RIVER is Mickey Fitzpatrick, a young but already veteran street cop in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, and the call is a familiar one. Philadelphia is in the middle of an opioid crisis: “Sometimes their family finds them first. Sometimes their children. Sometimes we do: out on patrol we simply see them there, sprawled out or slumped over, and when we check their vital signs they have no pulse. They’re cold to the touch. Even in summer.”
The first thing Mickey thinks about when she gets the call is: Kacey. She and her younger sister used to be inseparable: “At one time we knew each other so well that we could predict the next thing the other would say before she said it.” But those days are long gone. Kacey lives on the streets now, the one-time “fierce, small, fiery” girl is herself an addict, and worse, and Mickey is always afraid the next body she gets called out on will be hers.
It isn’t, though—and it doesn’t look like an overdose, either. Strangulation, she thinks, but her bosses are strangely noncommittal until, weeks later, another strangled woman turns up, and then another—and then Mickey realizes with a shudder that she hasn’t actually seen Kacey for much too long, and goes on the hunt.
What follows is an extraordinary personal and professional odyssey as, with an increasingly acute sense of urgency, Mickey searches through the city’s underbelly, navigating an ever-greater obstacle course of official hostility, criminal menace, a sergeant who doesn’t trust her, a family who won’t talk to her, a bitter ex-lover, an enigmatic ex-partner, and a young son she desperately wants to protect. Over the next several weeks, some of these people will surprise her—and her world will be turned upside down.
LONG BRIGHT RIVER is a story full of remarkable twists and even more remarkable characters, a powerful, compassionate portrait of family and place and the secrets we keep, sometimes from ourselves. For some, no matter where you go or how hard you try, you can never outrun the past.
“There are two main sources of inspiration for LONG BRIGHT RIVER,” says author Liz Moore. “The first is my own family’s long, multi-generational history of addiction of various kinds. Growing up, the specter of addiction always felt like a presence in my household.
“The second is more specific to Philadelphia, where I live, and which—like almost every place in the United States, it seems—has been really hard-hit by the opioid crisis. When I moved here a decade ago, I met the photographer Jeffrey Stockbridge, who had been making photographs of the interiors of abandoned homes in the city. While making those photos, he began to encounter people who’d taken shelter inside. Many or most were addicted to heroin, and had gotten there via prescription medication. In 2009, the media was not giving nearly as much coverage to the issue, so when Jeff invited me to go with him to Kensington (the center of opioid use and sales in Philly) to interview his subjects while he made portraits of them, I said yes. That was initially what drew me to the neighborhood, but I subsequently began going there on my own, separate from Jeff. I have written some nonfiction about the neighborhood, and lately I’ve been teaching free monthly writing workshops at organizations like St. Francis Inn, which serves Kensington, and Women in Transition, which serves women experiencing both domestic violence and substance abuse.
“Most of the research for the book was very organic, since I was in the neighborhood anyway. I wrote most of a draft of the book without doing ‘formal’ research—just relying on what I’d learned along the way. The policing aspect of the novel was what required the most. To get the details of the daily life of a patrol officer, I interviewed several police officers, and I also requested and participated in a ride-along through the Philadelphia Police Department that allowed me to spend a day alongside a Philly police officer.
“What has always surprised and upset me the most about what I’ve learned in Kensington is how easy it is to fall into addiction. I’ve met former schoolteachers, nurses, parents—all kinds of people who have become hooked on prescription pain medication in a way that becomes unmanageable, and the end of that road for them is living on the street or in an abandoned home, just trying to survive from day to day. Talking to the people I’ve met has been extremely humbling—it’s easy to cast judgment on someone from a distance, but when you get to know a person, it really becomes a matter of ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ I can easily imagine how one might become addicted. It’s made me extremely hesitant to ever take prescribed narcotic pain medication even in moments when it might be useful to me, which is maybe an overreaction, but given my family history, I’m nervous about it.”
Moore has had three previous novels—The Words of Every Song, Heft, and The Unseen World—each one of them different. The choice to tell this story through the lens of a suspense novel “was not a conscious decision—I was ensconced in the world of Kensington, and I had begun a short story that centered on two sisters who had gone in opposite directions in life—one was in active addiction and was living on the street, and the other was a police officer who was patrolling the same neighborhood her sister inhabited. As a writer, I liked the tension between their shared love and family history and the very different lives they had grown into. Kacey’s disappearance, and Mickey’s search for her both on and off the job, ended up being the propulsive forces that drove the book, and suddenly I was writing a police procedural. I guess it’s not completely a coincidence, as I’ve always loved to both read and watch police procedurals, and I’ve learned a lot from writers like Tana French, Richard Price, even Daniel Woodrell, whose Winter’s Bone isn’t a police procedural per se, but has that element of a missing person and a search for him.
“When I was in high school, I loved reading classic mysteries. Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, P. D. James, and Dorothy Sayers were some early favorites. But my first interest as a writer was the short story—I read and loved short stories by Katherine Mansfield, Edward P. Jones, Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri, Flannery O’Connor. My first book was a collection of interconnected short stories. My first three books probably draw inspiration more directly from them, but my sense of plot and story might come from the mysteries I’ve always liked to read. I also love to watch detective films and television. Movies like The Vanishing (the original, not the remake), Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Hitchcock films probably had a huge influence on me as a writer.
“Place is also extremely important to me as a writer. I’ve never written a novel set someplace I don’t have a very personal connection to, and I’m not sure I ever will. It took me a decade of living in Philadelphia to even feel qualified to write something set here, and even though I’m married to a Philadelphian husband and am raising two Philadelphia children, I still have imposter syndrome, a little bit! We’ll see how ‘real’ Philadelphians react to it when the book comes out.”
Moore once said in an interview, “I never write all the way through. There are a lot of failed attempts, and I piece them together one by one until I arrive at something that resembles a complete first draft… I want to bang my head into a wall until I feel like it’s good and then have someone else tell me what’s not good about it.”
She confirms it now: “Writing is not usually a pleasant thing for me. I equate it to exercise—I never want to do it, but I feel better having done it at the end of the day. The beginning of writing, when the ideas feel fresh and exciting, and the end, when I can see the finish line, are typically the best, but they comprise less than one percent of my writing time. The long, sad middle is the hardest but it’s also where the best and most important work gets done. I’ve never abandoned a novel, but I’ve thought about it every step of the way for each of the four books I’ve written.”
Her previous books were published in 2007, 2012, 2016 and now in 2020. “I always think it will go faster, and then it never does. Right now I have a three-year-old, a three-month-old and a full-time teaching job in Temple University’s MFA program, so I hate to say it, but I doubt my next one will come out any sooner than my accidental four-year schedule. You never know, though.”
What that next book will be “is a big question! I’m kind of at a turning point in my career—I happen to have written a ‘literary thriller’ or a police procedural or whatever you want to call it—and now I have to decide whether to continue on this path or whether to go back to the style of books I was writing before. Whatever I decide, I know my next book will have some element of mystery and a strong sense of story, because I think that’s the direction in which my writing has naturally been evolving since I first began.”
When she “first began,” she was very young, and her publishing process was not the usual one. “No one wants to hear this, but I almost stumbled into my first book contract. I think I was 22 when I signed it. I had been working on interconnected short stories about the music industry, and I had an almost complete collection and just after graduating I went back to a conference at my alma mater called ‘Women Writers at Barnard,’ I think, and attended a panel on publishing with alumnae who worked in the field. There, I met my first agent, who almost immediately sold my manuscript. But she retired shortly after that, so I had to go through a more traditional process of finding my next agent, who actually dropped me at a certain point before my second novel Heft came out, so I’ve had three agents in all. I guess the difficulty I experienced publishing my second novel makes up for the relative ease of publishing that first one.”
She’s only 36 now, but, still, that’s a lot of years in the business. If she could go back to her just-starting-out self and give her some advice, it’d be this:
“I’m realistic to the point of being negative, and I spent a lot of time telling myself not to get my hopes up and that I’d probably never get published and that if I did, probably no one would ever read my work. This has caused me to be pleasantly surprised every time something worked out for me, but it’s also caused me to spend a lot of time needlessly worrying and engaging in negativity. I’d probably tell myself that being realistic also means allowing yourself to have some hope, when you’re working hard and doing the right things along the way.”
The hard work has paid off. LONG BRIGHT RIVER received strong praise from such writers as Dennis Lehane, Paula Hawkins and Megan Abbott, and the movie rights were snapped up by heavyweight producers Amy Pascal and Neal H. Moritz, with Moore herself set to adapt. With all that firepower behind the book—I think she’s going to be pleasantly surprised again.
Neil Nyren retired at the end of 2017 as the executive VP, associate publisher and editor in chief of G. P. Putnam’s Sons. He is the winner of the 2017 Ellery Queen Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Among his authors of crime and suspense were Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, C. J. Box, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Jack Higgins, W. E. B. Griffin, Frederick Forsyth, Randy Wayne White, Alex Berenson, Ace Atkins, and Carol O’Connell. He also worked with such writers as Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, Daniel Silva, Martha Grimes, Ed McBain, Carl Hiaasen, and Jonathan Kellerman.
He is currently writing a monthly publishing column for the MWA newsletter The Third Degree, as well as a regular ITW-sponsored series on debut thriller authors for BookTrib.com, and is an editor at large for CrimeReads.
This column originally ran on Booktrib, where writers and readers meet: