The following blog first appeared in Mason Canyn’s Thoughts in Progress Blog
Your book, Lincoln’s Hand, use history for the basis of your mystery. I’d say you have an obvious passion for history.
Joel—Yes, I love American history. I would have been a history major in college if it weren’t for that darn language requirement. History can be very dramatic. Like any good drama, stories from history contain conflict, interesting characters and unusual settings, especially unusual to the modern eye. I like all of American history: the Revolutionary period, westward expansion, the turbulence surrounding the Civil War era, the old west right up through World War II.
You have taken an unusual story from American history as the catalyst for your modern day mystery story. How did that come about?
Joel—I learned about the attempt to steal Abraham Lincoln’s body from his grave from an old movie. The movie, made in the 1950s starring one-time Oscar winner Victor McLaglen, was titled the Abductors. It was a B-movie that didn’t receive a lot of attention. When I saw it as a teenager on a late night television showing I was shocked at the outrageous idea of trying to steal President Lincoln’s body. I was more amazed to find out the story was true. Eleven years after the assassination thieves tried to steal the body in hopes of exchanging it for a counterfeiter who was in prison. They were foiled. But the idea stuck with me and I realized it could make part of dramatic story.
But your book, while based on that strange historical event, is a modern day mystery. Is history woven throughout your story?
Joel—I don’t use flashbacks, but I use the strains of history that makes us the people we are as a fabric that runs through the story. Not only is the story driven by the question: Is Abraham Lincoln in his tomb – a reasonable question, by the way, because the coffin was moved many times and opened twice after the grave robbing attempt to be certain it was there – but I also have a terrorist attacking American monuments. The terrorist’s goal is to attack this country by attacking its history, its myths, as he says, that are represented by the monuments. Myths become an important part of the American story. They are built on facts. The rugged individualist American attitude that turned into the myth of the lone cowboy seeking justice in the old west. That’s an important piece of America’s makeup. Cheering for the underdog comes naturally to Americans because this country started as an underdog in battling for independence against the world’s strongest power, the British Empire. History can show us where our attitudes of today came from. It so happens that my protagonist, FBI agent Zane Rigby, possesses those culture traits of the lone man seeking justice and fighting for the underdog.
How did the idea of Abraham Lincoln’s DNA come to be part of your story?
Joel—Well, no one would be allowed to open a president’s grave without an extremely compelling reason. Finding the DNA, which matches DNA in bone kept from Lincoln’s autopsy, made a compelling reason and moved the story along.
So did you have to do a lot of research?
Joel–I had to do enough to make sure the history was right. But the favorite thing I did was travel to the place where most of my story takes place, Springfield, Illinois. I spent days there visiting the historical sites and driving around the countryside. I had a small tape recorder and I would record my observations such as the endless sea of corn cut by roads that were numbered but carried no name. When I got back to my hotel at night I would transcribe my notes from the recorder and would have them when I needed them once I started writing to describe a setting for the book.
Is Zane Rigby, your FBI protagonist, a series character? If so, can we expect more “presidential” plots?
Joel—Exactly right. I’ll take some unusual historical note from a president’s story and use that as my catalyst for Zane Rigby to solve the historical puzzle and an associated modern day murder. The working title of my next mystery is: FDR’s Treasure.