“You can’t write that in your novel. No one would believe it.” You hear that, you wonder if it’s really true, and then the 2016 presidential election breaks out. Capitol Punishment, the third in my series about Columbus private eye Andy Hayes (coming April 15 from Ohio University Press), focuses on a murder at the Ohio Statehouse in the midst of a presidential election year. Since its completion, I’ve been wondering how much farther I could have pushed the envelope given the acrobatics on the real campaign trail this season. In the meantime, here’s a look at how I tackled my own menagerie of politicians, courtesy of the “Story Behind the Story” feature in The Rap Sheet, available here and reproduced below.
If only I’d waited a few months.
I’ve had that feeling a lot lately, anticipating the publication ofCapitol Punishment, my third mystery about Columbus, Ohio, private eye Andy Hayes. In his latest outing, Andy gets an up-close and deadly view of Ohio’s quadrennial starring role in presidential politics. Assigned to protect a hard-charging reporter covering a school-funding bill during an election year, Andy finds himself wondering how far a governor with his eyes on the White House might go to keep certain truths from coming to light. It felt like a pretty good plot, if I do say so myself. Then this year’s real election got underway.
I guess the fictionalization of a sharp-tongued Ohio governor facing off against a potty-mouthed billionaire for the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue will have to wait. In the meantime, I’m taking comfort from the current Keystone Cops campaign that my own tale isn’t that far-fetched. “I think there is only one thing in the world I can’t understand, and that is Ohio politics,” Teddy Roosevelt once said. Adopting this adage, it was easy to create characters a bit over the top: a pig-farming state Supreme Court justice with a dark secret; a bowtie-wearing chief of staff labeled the “Prince of Dorkness”; and a police detective who bears more than a little resemblance to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry of War of 1812 fame. If only I’d thrown in a celebrated brain surgeon who equated universal health care to something worse than slavery. But no, there are limits to suspending one’s disbelief, even in fiction.
In some ways writing a mystery is like building a fire—small flames grow to a climactic blaze, which then diminishes into a denouement of coal and ashes. Achieving this sequence of events requires the proper location, kindling, and of course a spark to get things started. Composing a book with politics at its heart, I had all three in spades. Let’s start with location: Ohio, the best known of the bellwether states. As even casual political junkies know, no Republican has ever won the White House without taking the state, and only two Democrats have done so in more than a century (Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 and John F. Kennedy in 1960). Ohio plays kingmaker every four years—maybe “queen maker” this year—because of its purple state attributes: it’s a hodgepodge of cities, farms, and suburbs populated by liberals, moderates, and conservatives with every stripe of pro-union, anti-labor, and libertarian-leaning resident in-between. With eight presidents under its belt, the state is known for a gaze particular to politicians within its borders, what James Thurber dubbed the “Ohio Look”: “The dreamy, far-away expression of a man richly meditating on cheering audiences, landslides, and high office.”
Next, my kindling. For this I focused on two cohorts whose reputation couldn’t be much lower at the moment: politicians and reporters. We’re used to politicians as punching bags. But as a long-time journalist, I’m happy to report that my industry isn’t far behind: we now sit below lumberjacks and enlisted military personnel in rankings of the worst jobs, according to CareerCast’s annual list. Just a few rungs up the ladder, corrections officers and taxi drivers edged out photojournalists and broadcasters. (No word yet about Uber drivers.)
When it came to portraying politicians, in the form of state lawmakers and a governor, I tried to present individuals aiming to do good—in this case, pass a fictional school-funding bill—while engaging in questionable personal and political behavior. I had for my guide a comment attributed to 19th-century New York lawyer Gideon Tucker, an enlarged copy of which hangs in the Ohio Statehouse pressroom, to wit: “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” The observation was one of the first things I saw when I joined the press corps in1999 as an Associated Press newsman and was often on my mind during the year Capitol Punishment took shape. My fictional Statehouse bears a strong resemblance to the real thing, with a major exception: I put Democrats in charge of the Ohio Senate, which in reality they haven’t controlled for more than two decades. Although Republicans run everything in the Ohio Legislature these days, split governance isn’t that far-fetched: Democrats made up the House majority as recently as 2009. The partisan split I created through literary license provided the tension that makes murder plausible. As one of my characters notes, “Nothing changes hands at the Statehouse without an IOU attached. Don’t ever forget that.”
(Right) Author Andrew Welsh-Huggins
The reporter that my investigator protects, Lee Hershey, is an amalgam of several people I’ve known over the years, and reflects both the old and new elements of journalism. Once a dyed-in-the-wool newspaperman, he now runs an online investigative journalism blog that doesn’t have a print product. Like me, he’s as apt to get his news from an app as an actual paper. In early drafts Hershey was an unlikable cynic, and it was thanks to my editor that I painted him with a more realistic brush: a professional skeptic with a patriotic streak who pursues the truth because he loves his state and wants politicians to do the right thing by it. (His womanizing is another matter, and suffice it to say that Hershey’s zipper problem isn’t based on any of my colleagues’ conduct—at least, not that I’m aware of.)
I was getting close to starting the fire. The only thing missing was the spark. Although the fictional legislation up for debate funds schools, the real fireworks involve charter schools, those publicly funded, privately run institutions adored by Republicans and despised by most Democrats. Here was one area where the truth didn’t need much embellishment. Outside of abortion and guns, almost no issue in Ohio has led to more political arguments than these schools, whether the topic is their academic performance, their impact on traditional public schools, or their use (and misuse) of taxpayer dollars. Voila: we have ignition.
Little did I know that, had I waited just a little bit longer, I could have borrowed liberally, so to speak, from even more combustible source material. All I had to do was turn on the presidential debates.