Working in collaboration with Dr. Bill Bass, the forensic anthropologist who founded the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee, Jon writes the best-selling series of Body Farm novels. The latest—The Inquisitor’s Key—came out today. In the May issue of BookPage, Whodunit columnist Bruce Tierney called the novel “both thought-provoking and eminently plausible as the book races toward its unexpected (and highly original!) resolution.” Read an excerpt of the novel on the authors’ Facebook page.
The importance of setting
guest post by Jon Jefferson
I must be the world’s slowest learner. It took me seven novels to learn what is surely Rule #1 of book research, at least in the rulebooks of smarter writers: Set your novel in a fabulous place, so you can take a fabulous research junket!
Consider novel #1 in the Body Farm series of mysteries, Carved in Bone. Setting: Cocke County, TN, beautiful but hard-scrabble hill country in East Tennessee, where anyone driving a car with an out-of-county license tag is considered fair game—and where hunting season opens at sundown. I set one scene of Carved in Bone at a cockfight, and because I knew nothing about cockfighting, I arranged, through a friend of a friend, to take a Cocke County field trip—with a veteran cockfighter named Rick—to the Del Rio cockpit, one of the oldest and biggest cockfighting operations in the nation. (“But wait,” you might be thinking, “isn’t cockfighting illegal?” Yes, dear reader; yes it is. But the Del Rio cockpit had apparently forged a special, decades-long friendship with the Cocke Co. Sheriff’s Office.)
The fights took place in a gymnasium-sized building, with a large central arena—the pit—surrounded bleacher-style seating for 300 or so. Tucked at one end of the building was a concession stand selling drinks, burgers, fries, and—with no apparent sense of irony—chicken fingers. I spent a deeply disturbing afternoon in Del Rio, watching roosters tear one another to tatters, their natural spurs augmented with strapped-on knives and spikes. Before and even during each fight, spectators would call out amounts they wanted to wager on one or the other of the roosters (“50 on the red!”; “hunnerd on the white!”). After an hour or so, I’d seen all I needed to see—and all I could stand to watch. On the way back to my car, I passed a pickup truck whose bed was filled with the bodies of dead roosters.
Fast-forward six books and six years, to April 2011, when I found myself standing on a rooftop in France, looking down on the lovely city of Avignon, the setting for novel #7. The book, The Inquisitor’s Key, weaves together the stories of a heretic-obsessed medieval Inquisitor and an Apocalypse-obsessed televangelist, both of them driven to murder in the name of God. The conservator of the Palace of the Popes—the biggest Gothic palace in Europe—had agreed to give me a private tour of the place, which was built to house a series of French popes in the 14th century. She took me up winding spiral staircases to the tops of battlement-topped towers; down into the treasure-chamber, with its false floor; through bedchambers and chapels whose frescoed walls were adorned with scenes of miracles and saints—and falconers, fishermen and stag-hunters. In the days that followed, I threaded the labyrinthine streets within Avignon’s medieval city wall for hours on end. I knew the trip to Avignon was only a beginning; I knew I’d be spending months poring over books on Avignon, both medieval and modern: its popes and inquisitors, painters and poets, cops and killers.
Leaving the Palace that first day, I exited through the gift shop and wine-cellar. There, I drank a toast to the architectural, artistic and narrative treasure-trove of Avignon—and to my new-found skill in the art of choosing book settings.
Next stop? Florence and Venice. What’s the story? I’ve no idea . . . but I won’t leave Italy until I find it!
Watch a book trailer for The Inquisitor’s Key: