Writing From Experience

Writing From Experience

Former police writer Edna Buchanan signs a new crime novel in McLean

Despite having left her career as a police reporter for the Miami Herald to become a novelist, Edna Buchanan is still drawn to the sound of sirens.

During her recent book signing at the Books a Million store in McLean, twice her talk was interrupted by sirens screaming down Chain Bridge Road, twice her thoughts trailed off and her eyes followed the sound as it traveled along the road.

"It's hard to write fiction in Miami, where quite often truth is stranger," Buchanan said to an audience of about 20 fans. "For example, in recent weeks we've had the case of the school board representative who failed geometry, whose address was never in the same district where he was running."

In Miami, she said, no one associates a raft full of people or an old car sitting in someone's front year with playing Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn. "Miami seems to instill an aggressive madness in its residents," Buchanan said.

Her trip to McLean was to promote her new book, "Shadows," but she spent relatively little time talking about it, instead talking of her love for the place she has made her home for several decades.

"We live with a permanent tingle on the backs of our necks. We know that if Mother Nature doesn't get us, someone else will," she said, adding that those who have lived in Miami long enough know not to evacuate their homes before a hurricane because the damage from looting neighbors may be worse that from the storm itself.

It was at this point the first siren took off down the road. She paused, followed the sound with her eyes, saying, "Sounds like they're playing our song."

THE NAME OF her latest book comes from a fictional house built in the 1920s by a rumrunner who disappeared off the coast of Florida during a storm, she said. The location where the house sits was the real-life home of Carl Fisher, a man who helped envision Miami when it was nothing more than swampland.

"I like to keep things alive in my books that matter to me," she said, such as the Miami Times newspaper which stopped printing in the 1980s. Looking back at the past is important, she said, because the actions of the past make the present possible.

"The evil men do lives on long after they do. The past never dies. It's always with us," Buchanan said.

Her fascination with reporting crimes and solving mysteries has a deep connection within her personal life: Her father disappeared when Buchanan was only 7 years old and was never found.

"I love modern forensics and its Star Wars-like technology," she said, adding that with the help of scientific advancements in crime-solving tools, "it can tell us who really lies in Jesse James' grave, who is buried in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We just recently found out that King Tut was not bludgeoned to death, thanks to advances in crime technology, that the crack in his head was caused by the men who discovered his tomb in the 1920s," she said.

Her background covering murders and crimes, her dedication to "telling the story of each and every murder in Miami" was "a great privilege and I miss it," she said. "There are so many cases that haunt you. In real life, things don't wrap up as neatly as they do in novels. Working the police beat is like seeing Shakespeare in the raw."

Every once in a while, she said, she has to fight the urge to deliver her books door to door, delivering her work as a relief from the "lonesome" nature of working from home and away from the newsroom she so loved.

HOWEVER, MAKING the transition from police writer to novelist has enabled her to make her books more believable, her readers said.

"I came to a book signing she did last year for another novel and when I read it, I felt like I was still sitting here listening to her talk," said Kim Peifley, who had driven down from Rockville on Wednesday afternoon to hear Buchanan.

"It's interesting to meet a writer and hear about her background and where she comes up with her ideas." An avid reader of mysteries and crime novels, Peifley said she likes that Buchanan writes her novels in series format, using various characters in several books.

"People who like Miami would really like her books," she said. "It seems like the city is as important as any of the characters."

"My daughter discovered Edna Buchanan about a year ago when we were on vacation," said Bill Meyer, who was at the signing with his daughter and wife. The whole family has since become engrossed in her books. Meyer said it's clear that Buchanan puts her passions into her books.

"She's in love with Miami but she's also very sad about how it's changing, and yet she stays there," he said. "She's paid the price for the life she lives in friendships, but she lives very intensely. I really admire her dedication."

"It adds a lot of interesting perspective and detail that puts you on the inside track of how police investigate a crime," said reader Deborah Jones of Alexandria. "Because she has that background, it makes the story more believable."

Jones likened listening to Buchanan talking to the poetry of e.e. cummings, a poet in the 1970s known for his wandering, tangent-like style.

Through the reading of the newest book, Jones said, she was "looking forward to getting to know" Buchanan. "She has a great sense of humor," she said.

The "realism" she instills in her books makes Joel Guth an avid fan, carrying two stacks of books into the store during two trips to have them signed by Buchanan.

"She's the real deal. It shows that she used to be a reporter. It gives her writing more edge," he said. "It's amazing that such a beautiful woman can come across with such violence."