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Chasing Closure One Bone at a Time

The Big Thrill Interviews Award-Winning Author Loreth Anne White

By Hank Phillippi Ryan


No matter how experienced, best-selling, and award-winning a writer you are, beginning a new series is a daunting and exciting journey. It combines all the challenges of creating a standalone—a character you care about, a riveting problem, increasing complications, high stakes, and a satisfyingly surprising ending—with the singular necessities of a series: not only a terrific story but with characters you want to follow wherever they go.

Loreth Anne White has taken that step with her brand new THE UNQUIET BONES. It’s a cold case procedural melded with psychological suspense—and the beginning of her new Munro and Quinn series. White’s 30 previous novels have earned her glowing reviews, literary awards, and a passionate international fan base—with more than three million books sold! If you’re already a fan, you’ll see how her earlier novels evolved into dark, twisty, psychological thrillers and mysteries that address the technical aspects of crime investigation as they explore the emotional consequences of trauma and loss.

And, in providing what the industry requires in a ‘big” book, White’s new novel also encompasses a pervasive theme: in this case, an exploration of closure, and why the human condition demands every crime has a satisfying conclusion. And what happens to people when a devastating and personal crime is not resolved.

Here, The Big Thrill chats with White about THE UNQUIET BONES.

Author Photo: Loreth Anne White

Loreth Anne White

Can you tell us what this book is about—and also what it’s about?

When human remains are unearthed beneath an old chapel in the woods, the discovery re-opens an almost 50-year-old mystery of a missing teen. As the bones begin to ‘speak’ to my homicide detective and her forensic anthropologist colleague, the story they begin to tell starts to unravel the lives of a group of old friends once dubbed the Shoreview Six by the media, and the friends—who now have so much more to lose after all these years—will learn just how far each might go to keep the truth buried.

The story also examines media exploitation of pain, as well as the notion of ‘closure.’ Is closure indeed what it’s cracked up to be? Does closure actually bring peace? And how might one live—and grieve—without it, because sometimes answers can forever remain elusive. My cop is struggling with her own complicated loss and unanswered questions, which in turn feeds a fierce drive in her to bring closure to this case and to others, even if she can’t find it herself. The story also explores how easy it is to blame or scapegoat the ‘other’ in a community and how guilt and shame can shape lives.

How do you hope readers will feel at the end of it?

My goal with the ending was to, of course, have my detective solve the mystery of the bones, but I also hoped to leave the reader with a lingering sense of what lack of closure still means. And to show how sometimes the truth, or resolution, doesn’t always have a ‘happy’ happy ending and how crime and the associated outfall is filled with shades of grey. My wish was also that the reader feels a kinship with my cop, Jane—that they like her. And there is a message that empathy and kindness can be qualities of strength.

Your new book is inspired by a true crime. What do you remember about when you first heard about that crime? Why did it stay with you?

On a hot summer night in 1976—not far from where I lived—16-year-old Rhona Duncan was sexually assaulted and strangled to death mere steps away from her house after walking home from a party with friends. I was three years younger than Rhona was when she was killed. I attended school nearby. I knew how safe the neighborhood was. I was familiar with the kids and clothes and music and TV shows of that time and place. Rhona could have been any one of us, and it’s amazing that to this day–despite the police periodically revisiting the investigation–her brutal murder remains unsolved. While the crimes and characters detailed in THE UNQUIET BONES are completely fictional, Rhona’s murder resonated with me and provided the seed for the novel.

A story about a missing person can be risky for a writer because a reader knows that either the person will be found—alive or dead—or they won’t be found. Well, wait. Is that risky or wonderful?

This made me laugh. It also made me ponder—does a story about a missing person have to end with the person found? I guess it’s a bit like asking: In a story about a murder or a crime, the reader (at least in this genre) generally goes in assuming the detective will find the killer, or solve the mystery, no? The story is about how they get there and how the journey impacts or changes the detective. I think a crime novel is usually about a lot more than just solving a crime. It’s always about some aspect of society, community, human nature, or our culture of the time because what we decide is a crime, and how we choose to police crime and mete out justice . . . it says a lot about who we are as people. Crime novels, I think, are ways of finding order in the chaos of the world.

How and when did you come up with the title?

The title evolved with the discovery of bones and how those bones began to speak to my investigators. Bones are often the last thing we leave behind, yet they can tell so much about who we were, how we lived, where we lived. And sometimes, they tell how we died.

What’s the first line, and was that always the first line?

“A steady rain falls as Benjamin and Raphael Duvalier work their excavator alongside a dark lake on the misted flanks of Hemlock Mountain. The brothers are digging up the concrete foundations of an old and tiny wooden A-frame chapel.”

No, those were not always the first lines. I rework text so much I don’t even recall the various iterations of the earlier first lines!

The idea of closure is such a theme in this novel; can you talk about that a little bit? Why that concept is so compelling to you—and to us?

Never knowing what happened to a loved one or why something awful or violent occurred to them is a kind of hell I can only imagine. This never knowing is something that underscores all cold and unsolved cases, and I think ideas around a lack of closure really started to niggle at me when I began covering news stories about people who went missing in the mountains around the ski resort I call home. Sometimes, their remains are found decades later. Other times, they might never be found. I wanted my homicide detective in THE UNQUIET BONES to experience this kind of emotional limbo while working on cold cases where she can perhaps finally bring closure to others. My hope is that my detective, Jane Munro, brings a special kind of empathy to her work because of her personal experience.

You use a phrase called grief limbo—I have never heard that phrase before. What does that mean?

People experiencing grief typically cycle through stages, most commonly including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. However, when there is a lack of closure, the loss can become an ongoing trauma, and this trauma—this “ambiguous” loss—is sometimes referred to as “frozen grief” or being in “grief limbo.” An example of this kind of complicated grief is what a mother might experience when her child is kidnapped, and she doesn’t know whether her child is dead or alive or ever coming home.

War, acts of terrorism, deportation, genocide, natural disasters can all result in complicated loss. A type of grief limbo can also occur even when a person does know where their loved one is and what happened to them, as in after a divorce, or with the incarceration of a loved one, or an adoption, or losing someone to Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, severe mental illness, depression, addiction, or a traumatic brain injury. It can also happen with “ghosting.”

In the book, you also examine the balance between focusing on one’s personal good versus the greater good—why is that so fascinating to you?

It’s a perpetual dilemma in this divisive entitlement era, is it not? Focusing exclusively on what is good only for oneself can come at the expense of others. It fosters a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to listen. I suspect we could all listen more deeply and try to empathize a little more.

When you are writing a book inspired by a true crime, how do you decide what details to keep authentic and which ones to fictionalize?

That’s a good question. While the idea for THE UNQUIET BONES was sparked to life by a true crime, the story is all fictional. However, two of my earlier works, The Patient’s Secret and Beneath Devil’s Bridge, lean a little more heavily into real events that occurred, but I use the details of the crimes more as a backstory that informs the fictional narratives as they unfold in the present.

As a journalist, your whole job is to tell a riveting and compelling story. How do you use what you learned as a journalist to create equally compelling fiction?

For a time, I covered the crime beat as a journalist, and getting to know law enforcement and the procedures around tragic events has definitely helped shape my fiction. The job also taught me to sit my butt into a chair and produce words daily. As with novels, I think a compelling news article starts with a good story question, something that piques curiosity in the minds of readers, who will then keep reading to find the answer by the end. News becomes particularly engaging if it’s about people—characters—whose struggles resonate in some way with readers.

What do you think are the secrets to successful suspense? What keeps a reader turning the pages?

As a reader, my favorite suspense novels all start with an intriguing ‘story question’ that keeps me turning pages to learn the answer. Big bonus points if the author truly surprises me with that answer! I adore twists I don’t see coming, but at the same time, they should be well-seeded to make them feel organic. And for thrillers, I prefer shorter chapters, each ending with a chapter hook that further piques my curiosity and additionally complicates the heroine’s journey. I don’t need the focal characters to be likeable, but I do want to be intrigued by them or possibly empathize with them in some ways.

What did you learn from this book?

Another good question. I learn something more about the craft and challenges of writing with each work, but from the research I did for the story, I discovered some truly fascinating-to-me things about bones and what they can tell about the living even hundreds of years later. I think that was my biggest takeaway—a deepening fascination and also reverence for the human body and those who study it.


The Big Thrill Interviews Award-Winning Author Loreth Anne White

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