Mining Information for Authenticity
By Dawn Ius
Rick Reed grew up around coal country, but he’s never been in a mine—so to research his latest Jack Murphy thriller, THE FIERCEST ENEMY, he “mined” information from residents living near Pleasant Grove Farm in Lyons, Indiana.
Originally from a mining family, the owner had turned his attention to the fields—but when the farm got too big, he transformed the main farmhouse into a hotel and built several cabins. Reed stayed in one of those cabins for a week, talking to miners, visiting mining museums, and “getting a good feel for the people and the countryside.
“I wanted to know how they talked, how they lived, where the main industry was,” Reed says. “Most of the area I use in the book are small towns.”
He didn’t go down into a mine, though—too dangerous. Instead, he used his imagination to conjure up what it might be like to be trapped in an abandoned part of a mine, “in total darkness, breathing mold and coal dust.”
That claustrophobia and fear is then transferred to readers, as we follow Detectives Jack Murphy and Liddell Blanchard underground to track a killer who appears to be using the mines as a burial site. Jack and Liddell run into a couple of obstacles along the way, the first being the local chief, Shaunda Lynch, who is more than capable of policing her jurisdiction—and resents the intrusion of male authority figures.
Those conflicting dynamics weren’t created by accident—well, not entirely. Reed has developed this trifecta of authority figures to help demonstrate that not all policemen and women are created equal—a theme he sometimes sees in fiction, though not something he experienced on the job as a former homicide detective or in his previous role as commander of internal affairs.
“I don’t believe there is ‘inequality’ in police work as such. We’re all painted with the same brush and that helps form a cohesive bond,” he says. “In most cases men are physically stronger than women. It’s nature. Men will always be protective of women. Nature again. Suspects don’t care about inequality or political correctness. They’re neither chauvinist nor feminist.
“My characters take over the show when I start writing. I’m just the medium. The book didn’t start out to be a problem between the male chief of police in Linton and the female chief of police in Dugger, but they decided they didn’t like each other. What could I do? I have to admit that I drew on some of the stories in the news media to add to the brusqueness.”
Since retirement, Reed says “reading about cops” is how he keeps up to date on processes and procedures. It’s a career he enjoyed, and for a while the break from it was good, but Reed admits he wouldn’t mind dipping a toe back in if the opportunity should arise.
“I always wanted to be a detective and I was one for almost 20 years,” he says. “I would still like to work cold cases, but as a consultant, not as a policeman.”
That day may never come, but it won’t stop Reed from continuing to research—not just about modern policing, but also the kind of information that will help develop his characters’ backstories. One of the ways he does that is by watching documentaries.
“I was in the Army during Vietnam and I watch many of the documentaries about that war. Also WWI and WWII,” he says. “There’s a parallel between how some of those officers, politicians, and such behave that is perfect for the foundation of a character. Patton and Rommel are two examples. They were on different sides of the war but were so much alike in every other way. Imagine two characters, protagonist and antagonist, being very alike but with different goals.
“Hitler is a good start on a madman character with the short, clipped, forceful way he spoke. He was very charismatic and entirely insane and ruthless, but he believed he was right.”
Heavy viewing, for sure, but it makes up for the kinds of “light” shows Reed doesn’t watch—police dramas and documentaries. “Been there, done that, don’t want the T-shirt.”
Besides, right now there’s enough real-life drama going on to cure any homesickness for his past job—though that experience has given him an interesting perspective on the role of the police force in the face of this global pandemic.
“When I was in law enforcement we worked through floods, tornados, frozen roads, hail storms, and flu. We would pick up doctors and nurses and take them to work and take others home when the roads were dangerous. This pandemic is no different except for the panic that has been caused,” he says. “I’m not minimizing the risks, but police work will go on regardless. When AIDS was the big scare we had to deal with that. We were bled on or spat on by someone that said they had AIDS. It was like getting a death sentence. But that’s everyday police work. I would choose law enforcement as a career today. It’s not a job. It’s who you are. You never put it behind you.”
That kind of commitment and loyalty has a profound effect on his writing as well.
“I write to minimize the impact of that life on this life,” he says. “I still remember the good that I did for the victims and their families. I remember the bad I had to do as well. I remember every person that went to prison and their family. This personal grief or failure or joy or sense of accomplishment helps my characters breathe.”