My literary awakening came in seventh grade when a teacher assigned Crime and Punishment. Sure, it warped me, but in that useful way, like bending the bill of a ball cap or sawing off a shotgun barrel. What fascinated me then, as it does today, was not the brutal murder committed by the desperate college student Raskolnikov, but his subsequent attempts to cover up the crime. All the teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing, the lies and desperation, the existential dread—these things infect the reader, reveal layers of character, and prove that sometimes the most fitting punishment for a criminal is to let them stew in their own guilt and paranoia.
I spent months, maybe years, as I was writing my own nervous cover-up novel, Soil, wondering how Jay, my protagonist, would get rid of a dead body. How do you dispose of a corpse completely, in a way that hasn't been done already a hundred times in fiction, and that erases all the evidence without drawing attention?
The chapter where Jay is wandering around the pasture thinking about this, coming up with various scenarios and contingencies, is a condensed form of the conversation I had with myself and with other thoughtful conspiracists, including my father-in-law, a private detective.
I arrived at the solution pretty much the same way Jay did—imagining charcoal as a way to filter the inevitable smell of a burning body. I figured out how charcoal was made and discovered bio char as fertilizer. It fit perfectly into the theme, and I knew that had to be the answer. I consulted a New England bio char company and figured out how to design the barrel retort, sought the help of a local metal worker to build it, and took the dressed-out deer carcass from a local processor. I conducted the experiment in my backyard in town just as Jay does it with the bones in one batch and the organs on the propane burner. I had everything ready, and then it rained for three days straight, so by the time I got to the bones, they were rank and disgusting. It was a hideous project. All the revulsion and anxiety and insanity that Jay feels, it comes from genuine emotions and experience. All the fine details.
Here are five books I revisited when I was writing Soil. Since you’ve probably read (or at least know about) most of these, the bookseller in me insisted on also recommending alternate titles you may have missed.
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
No one tightens the screws and creates simmering anxiety better and more consistently than Patricia Highsmith. She uses tidy constructions and deceptively bland characters to lull the reader, but a vague menace is always lurking around the corner. It’s the literary equivalent of a barely audible, high-pitched frequency you can’t locate. When she pulls the rug out, you may be on your ass and still not realize it happened. Strangers on a Train is her debut novel—two strangers meet, one ropes the other into performing criss-cross murders to protect their alibis—and it’s a good entry point to her deep and impressive backlist, which includes such highlights as The Talented Mr. Ripley, This Sweet Sickness, and The Tremor of Forgery.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
When two or more people know a secret, is it still a secret? In this masterful debut, a clique of college intellects are implicated in the murder of their peer. What follows is a waiting game to see who will crack first. Aside from creating exquisite tension and dread, Tartt illustrates how a successful criminal cover-up invariably necessitates further crimes. For an alternate, check out Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan, which complicates the issue of secrecy by tossing a bag of money into the mix.
1984 by George Orwell
In this dystopian classic, the protagonist has committed no moral crime, only harbors a secret hatred for the governing Party. When he begins an affair with a like-minded young woman, their very thoughts are targeted to prove their criminal disloyalty. A fascinating study of social guilt and oppressive secrecy. More recently I discovered Hans Fallada’s hugely compelling, World War II-era masterpiece Every Man Dies Alone, in which a man and his wife subvert the Nazis by leaving hand-written screeds in public places. It has the body of a classic social novel with the engine of a thriller.
The Firm by John Grisham
Grisham lived 20 minutes away from me in high school, so naturally I read all of his books. I particularly loved the way his lawyer hero, Mitch McDeere, obsessively covered his tracks and used the maze of rules and procedure to stay one step ahead of his unscrupulous co-workers, whose conspiracies he was cannily exposing. This meticulous loophole-ducking is memorably employed in Guy Lawson’s recent Octopus, the wild and frequently hilarious true story of a hedge-fund manager who hides his bad financial gambles by doubling down again and again, as various and strange forces conspire against him.
Citrus Countyby John Brandon
You may have missed this haunting novel by one of my favorite up-and-coming writers. Brandon creates a great effect here—his junior-high protagonist commits a terrible act that lingers hazily in the background while, in the deceptively mundane foreground, he starts up a friendship with a schoolmate, a victim of his misdeed. Their half-cocked teacher fumbles comically in and out of scene as well. The effect is unnerving. The reader, not the criminal, becomes paranoid. The kid is likable but misguided, so we spend the entire novel dreading how this will end. And when it arrives, we’re left terribly, wonderfully conflicted.
Jamie Kornegay lives in the Mississippi Delta, where he runs the independent bookstore Turnrow Book Co. in Greenwood, Miss. Soil, his first novel, is published this month by Simon and Schuster.