Every novel, including my latest Appalachian noir Lake Charles, is rooted to a specific place. I chose mine with care. One July in the early 1980s, my wife and I packed up our rattletrap Ford Escort, said a prayer, and drove off to stay at a budget motel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Nestled amid the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s a picturesque tourist mecca. I’d already been there a few years before while hiking 150 miles of the Appalachian Trail that rambles along the craggy summits.
We’d camped out, rarely meeting any folks except fellow scruffy hikers along the trail. I did get to see close up a lot of the Tennessee boonies. On the second trip with my wife, however, I rubbed elbows with the natives and took in the local color. At the time, I’d no idea that my seventh novel would spring from my two Gatlinburg experiences, but that’s what happened 25 years later when I wrote Lake Charles.
Gatlinburg had left its lasting impressions on me. My young protagonist Brendan Fishback’s troubles begin after he awakens in his motel bed next to the dead Ashleigh Sizemore, whom he’d met the previous night at a rock concert. As far as I know, no homicide occurred at our motel, but I took away a suggestion of where to stage the death scene in Lake Charles and set in motion the narrative’s conflict.
The Great Smoky Mountains also offered the ideal spot to cast my noirish tale, and I set out to portray my setting with the grit, verve, and energy expected of an Appalachian noir. For instance, one chase scene unfolds in the virtually impenetrable rhododendron undergrowth the locals call a “laurel hell.” The wild boars rooting up the soil are perfect to explore the myth of Circe, the Greek sorceress who bewitched Odysseus and his men, through my femme fatale Ashleigh. The mountain “balds” where little grows except for grass gave me another stage. The boulder beds provided the raw materials to create a burial cairn in a pivotal scene. I even elected to put my fictional hamlet of Umpire just a shot down the highway from Gatlinburg.
Obviously from the title a lake is central to my novel, and I had a mental snapshot for its design. On the first night of our Appalachian Trail hike, we made an impromptu camp near Fontana Dam. The body of water bottled up there became the literary inspiration for my Lake Charles. In the wee hours, black bears caused us to scurry up the trail for the safety of a bear-proof shelter. We made it out okay.
This isn’t so true for Brendan. He encounters nothing good at the stagnant Lake Charles. While tramping along its brushy banks, he runs up not against local moonshiners, but a drug cartel growing a big, illicit crop of marijuana. The plot amps up, and the rugged terrain broken up by its hollows, creeks, and thickets pose a challenge for him to cross while battling his new enemies.
In fact, absent the mountainous vista, Lake Charles would lose its crisp, hard-edged vividness cited in Publishers Weekly and the key part of its appeal to mystery readers.
Lake Charles, Ed Lynskey, Wildside Press, June 2011.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.