In high school, Johnny Earl seemed to have it all: good looks, brains, a pretty girlfriend and athletic talent. But when an injury ends Johnny’s mediocre career in professional baseball, he ends up back home in Steubenville, Ohio, with little money and no prospects. A stint as a cocaine dealer solves the money problem but earns him a seven-year stay in federal prison. Things go from bad to worse when Johnny is released from prison—and the informant who nailed him turns up dead soon after.
In Robin Yocum’s captivating new mystery, A Welcome Murder, Johnny becomes the primary suspect in the crime, but Steubenville offers plenty of other possible shooters, from a former homecoming queen to her long-suffering husband. Narrated by five of the characters, this entertaining tale offers both occasional hilarity and a realistic look at the economic decline of southeastern Ohio.
Yocum, who grew up near Steubenville, earned a degree in journalism and worked as a crime and investigative reporter for the Columbus Dispatch for more than a decade. His fiction debut, the 2011 mystery Favorite Sons, was released in a new paperback edition last week. His other books include The Essay and 2016’s A Brilliant Death, a coming-of-age mystery that’s a nominee for this year’s Edgar Awards. We asked him to tell us more about creating the memorable cast of A Welcome Murder.
All of your novels take place in the Rust Belt region of southeastern Ohio. Why do you keep coming back to this area?
I love the grit and grind of the Ohio River Valley. It’s an area rich in character and it provides a backdrop in which I am comfortable. As most of my readers know, this is where I grew up. When I was young, I didn’t know an artist, or a writer, or a musician. Every man I knew left for work each morning with a hardhat in one hand and a tin lunch pail in the other, my father included.
Several years ago, I started on a sequel for Favorite Sons. I set the story in Columbus, where I’ve lived for more than 35 years. While I liked the premise of the book, I struggled. I finally realized it was the setting. I like Columbus, but the backdrop was too sterile. I missed the smoke and fires of the steel mills. I might someday take another run at the book, but I will move the setting to the Ohio River Valley.
Your book has five narrators, each with a unique voice—Johnny Earl; ambitious Sheriff Francis Robertson; his scheming wife Allison; former Steubenville High homecoming queen Dena Marie and her put-upon husband Smoochie. Which one was your favorite to write?
My favorite character is my lead, Johnny Earl. Throughout the book he makes a transition from a cocky high school athlete, to terrified prison inmate, to, I believe, a pretty decent guy at the end of the book. But, to answer your question, Smoochie was my favorite to create. We all knew a Smoochie Xenakis back in high school. He was the awkward guy who tried too hard to be popular and was a frequent target for the bullies. It was a lot of fun creating his transition from class nerd to suspected murderer and watching him take advantage of the situation. There were times when I was writing about Smoochie and laughing out loud, particularly when he gives the clothing store clerk a hard time.
"I dropped a corpse in the middle of their plans, then sat back and waited to see how they reacted. Most of the time, they reacted badly, which is reality."
A Welcome Murder is a fascinating blend of genres and tones. It’s sort of a modern, rural noir, but with a decidedly comic voice. Are there any specific authors or works that influenced your style?
First of all, thanks for the kind words. My favorite writers are John Steinbeck and James Lee Burke. I’m also a fan of Mark Twain. However, I’m can’t say any of them really influenced me when I was writing this book. I started out wanting to write a story about a former high school athlete who never grew beyond his yellowing press clippings. When I started writing, I just let the characters take over. This book is dialogue driven. At times, I felt like I was simply taking dictation while they told the story. In a way, these characters are stereotypical—the ex-jock, the former homecoming queen, the class nerd, the aspiring politician and the unhappy wife. However, I dropped a corpse in the middle of their plans, then sat back and waited to see how they reacted. Most of the time, they reacted badly, which is reality.
Do you think the vices and bad decisions of Johnny Earl and other characters can be blamed at least in part on the hopelessness of their environment? Or do you think they would have managed to get in the same predicaments regardless of where they grew up?
I think it was a mix. Johnny Earl was his own worst enemy, particularly when he was younger, and the setting had no bearing on the fact that he was a horse’s ass in high school. Dena Marie was definitely influenced by her environment and her situation. Remember this passage: “We were sexually active in high school. My parents used to go visit my grandmother at the nursing home on Sunday afternoons, and I think they did that so I could have some time alone with Johnny. I used to give him head while he drank my dad’s beer and watched the Steelers games on television. Dad was a loyal Steubenville Big Red athletic booster and openly disappointed that my brother had been gifted with brains and not great athletic ability. However, if his daughter were to marry the greatest athlete in the history of the high school, that would be redemption for the shame of having fathered a mathematics genius. And if his little girl had to give a little head in the process, so be it.”
I can forgive Dena Marie some of her indiscretions given her situation. She wasn’t raised to be an independent woman; she was raised to be someone’s wife. Sheriff Roberson was raised in Steubenville and still managed to get out of the Ohio Valley and become quite successful. I think the environment has a lot to do with a person’s upbringing, but personal choices matter, too.
No matter how appalling their decisions are, your characters are, for the most part, sympathetic and even appealing. How do you avoid stereotypes and create such believable characters?
I don’t mean for this to sound flippant, but I try to let the characters develop on their own, then verbalize their thoughts. We all have hopes and dreams, regardless of our age. However, most of us are too insecure or worried about what others think to talk about our dreams. We’re afraid if we talk about it, we will open up ourselves to ridicule. That isn’t the case with my characters. They are honest about their aspirations. Johnny tells you he wants to be inducted into the baseball hall of fame. The sheriff tells people he wants to be the president. Dena Marie wants Johnny. Smoochie wants respect and Dena Marie. The sheriff’s wife wants to get out of Steubenville and into the governor’s mansion. This exposes their vulnerabilities. I believe that most of life isn’t black or white. It’s lived somewhere in that vast gray area in the middle. If your characters think and act within that gray area—like the rest of us—readers will be able to relate to them.
Do you share Johnny Earl’s love for baseball?
Growing up, I only wanted to be two things in life—a fireman and the second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates. I was a pretty decent baseball player. Not major league material, but a good high school and American Legion player. During baseball season my senior year in high school, while I was sitting on the bench with a shattered ankle and a plaster cast on my leg, I thought, “Perhaps I should come up with a backup plan in case this whole major league thing doesn’t work out.” Thus, I started looking for a career where a mediocre throwing arm wouldn’t be a deterrent to drawing a paycheck. I passed up several opportunities to play baseball in college to play football at Bowling Green [State University] because I needed the scholarship money. Yes, I love baseball, and I remain a diehard Pirates fan.
Why did you choose to set A Welcome Murder in 1989?
I set the stage for A Welcome Murder in the previous book, A Brilliant Death. The narrator in A Brilliant Death was Mitch Malone, who graduated high school in 1972. He and Johnny Earl are cousins born a few days apart. Thus, the math determined that the book would be set in the late 1980s. This isn’t a series, but the next book will feature another cousin, Nicholas “Duke” Ducheski.
You describe Steubenville, Ohio, in the book as “a dingy, gray city that is dying a slow death.” Have things gotten any better for Steubenville in the decades since the book was set?
Unfortunately, things have definitely not gotten better. When I was growing up, there were 60,000 steel mill jobs in the Upper Ohio River Valley. The jobs are gone and they’re starting to demolish the old mills. It’s very sad, and somewhat difficult to comprehend that something as mighty as the steel industry in the Ohio Valley has all but disappeared. My great-grandfather came to America, by himself, when he was 15 and eventually went to work in the coal mines of Eastern Ohio. My maternal grandfather went to work in the glass factory in my hometown of Brilliant when he was 10-years old. The entire economy of the Ohio Valley and Eastern Ohio rested on the broad shoulders of steel workers and coal miners. Now, it’s virtually all gone. The downtown Steubenville of my youth was a vibrant, bustling place with three movie theaters, the Hub Department Store, bakeries, five-and-dimes and on and on. Now, it’s a shadow of its former self. I hope that someday prosperity will return, but I don’t believe that will occur in my lifetime.
With the renewed interest in rural America since the 2016 presidential election, do you think an accurate portrait of this region is being drawn in the media? Or are there aspects of it that are still being missed?
For the most part, I think the media hit it right. The people in the Ohio Valley are fiercely independent and proud people. When America was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and two world wars, the men and women of the Ohio Valley put the country on its shoulders and carried it through, producing steel at an incredible pace. We supplied steel for cars, bridges, tanks and airplanes. Now, the mills are gone and they now feel ignored, or worse, forgotten. The population of the Ohio Valley has dropped because young people need to go elsewhere to find work. It’s sad, and it makes people angry, particularly the ones who remember the good times. I wish I knew how to fix the problem, but I don’t.
If you were a casting director, who would you want to cast in a movie adaptation of A Welcome Murder?
OK, so I went to a website that features photographs of famous actors under the age of 40. My immediate response was, “Holy crap, I don’t know any of these guys.” I would probably call Clint Eastwood or Ron Howard and beg for help. But, that doesn’t answer your question. Most of the actors I really like are too old for the roles, or they’re dead, which further complicates things. (You know, the greatest entertainer of all time, Dean Martin, was from Steubenville.) OK, sorry, back to your question. I’d ask Kaley Cuoco of “The Big Bang Theory” to play Dena Marie. Kevin Sussman, who plays Stuart Bloom, the comic book store owner on the same show, would make a good Smoochie, but we would need to give him Botox injections in his lips. Chris “Captain America” Evans would make a good Johnny Earl. (Also, I would find a role for Katheryn Winnick, who plays Lagertha on the History Channel show “Vikings,” for no other reason than there’s something about beautiful Viking warrior babes that flips my switch.)
You’ve written true crime, coming-of-age and mystery, and your critical reputation has grown with each book. What’s next for you?
My next book, which will be out in about a year, is also set in Ohio River town of Mingo Junction and centers around a former high school basketball star who, 20 years after he made the most famous shot in school history, seeks a way to define his life beyond something he did when he was still shaving twice a week.
I am also working on a book that is set in Eastern Ohio during a coal mine strike in the 1920s, and have a memoir in the works. I’m excited about the memoir. It follows the parallel paths of the steel industry and my family. There was a time when the steel mills boomed and my family all lived within a few miles of each other. I follow these separate but interrelated paths to a point where the steel industry begins to die, and I am pushed out the door in search of opportunities beyond the fires of the mills.