Queally’s second novel featuring reporter-turned-PI Russell Avery, All These Ashes (Polis, Sept.), explores racism in the justice system’s approach to crimes involving victims of color.
How did this series originate?
The rough outlines for the Russell Avery character—a young, impulsive, maybe more self-righteous than he is smart, reporter fumbling around in Jersey—had lived in my head for some time. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with him. Then, my real-life newspaper sent me to Ferguson, Mo., to cover the unrest that followed the decision not to prosecute the police officer who killed Michael Brown. It made me gravitate more toward crime fiction that tackled social justice issues and the criminal justice reform debate, as opposed to the more standard detective stories I grew up on.
Is the Twilight Four case in the book based on a real one?
Yes, it’s loosely based off the Clinton Five case. Five boys, none older than 17, vanished in Newark in 1978. In 2010, while I was working at the Star-Ledger, I helped cover the arrest of Lee Evans, the man who supposedly killed them by trapping them in a row house and burning it down. The prosecution’s entire case was built on someone else’s confession implicating Evans. Much like in All These Ashes , there’s no objective proof to corroborate this. In real-life, Evans wasn’t convicted, and I actually interviewed him years later. The case always stuck with me for a couple of reasons. I could never get past the idea that five teenagers up and vanished and the case isn’t more widely known. The gruesome way they supposedly died is just an unimaginable, visceral horror. And, maybe most importantly, it taught me just how easily someone could be labeled a murderer.
What can you do in a novel about criminal justice that you can’t do as a reporter?
You can explore motivation in a much different way. We obviously challenge the veracity of our sources’ statements in journalism and provide context to city officials’ claims, but we’re still somewhat constrained to stay as objective as possible. In my novels I can usually find ways, either through the plot itself, the narration, or Russell’s biting way of speaking, to call out hypocrisy among police, the media, activists, etc.
What’s surprised you the most about shifting to fiction?
That it wasn’t as freeing as I thought it would be. I thought I’d simply let my imagination run wild. Instead, I still feel compelled to keep my fiction authentic and as tethered to reality as possible. I’m often triple-checking that certain streets in Newark actually line up during a foot-chase scene.