Turner said “Devil Sent the Rain” began with the image of a rainy dawn at a buffalo preserve on the outskirts of Memphis. There was a red 1968 Camaro Z/28 mired in a muddy pasture. Inside, a young blonde wearing an elegant wedding gown was slumped behind the wheel. “There was blood streaking down her cheek. So I thought what’s her story? What led her to this place?”
The story involves the Lee family, who have their roots in an antebellum Mississippi plantation. Turner said, “The family sees themselves as aristocrats whose lineage entitles them to take what they need. The dead woman was the Lee’s only daughter and a partner in their law firm. From there, my story of pretense and entitlement took off on its own.”
As a resident of Memphis, Turner has seen the demographics of the South change. She’s also seen how the changes have affected the area’s social structure, which includes what Turner calls a bubble of Old South elites.
“Maybe it’s more of a time capsule,” Turner said. “Their lives are based on maintaining an elaborate pretense. They are typically descendants of plantation owners who farmed thousands of acres of rich Delta soil. They follow a specific code of behavior, live in the most exclusive parts of town, and send their children to private universities where they prepare themselves to enter the family business of extending their influence and wealth.
“From behind the façade of good manners, these Southern aristocrats try to impose their wildly conservative views on a society they know little about. As the city becomes more diverse, their pretense is eroding.”
A true-crime cold case involving the disappearance of a Memphis college student also became a part of “Devil Sent the Rain.” Turner said, “Two weeks before graduation, the young man missed several classes. Duck hunters discovered his clothes neatly stacked at the edge of an Arkansas rice field. Police believed his body had been swept away in a nearby river and let it go as suicide.”
In the cold case, the family didn’t believe the death was a suicide and hired a private investigator. Turner said, “I learned the details of the case through the investigator, who became convinced he knew who had killed the student and why. The investigator spent so much time on the case and was so obsessed it cost him his marriage.
“My challenge was to present the case to readers as a subplot without distorting the facts while honoring the investigator’s intense feelings. At the same time, I had to shape this powerful story to serve my main plot and not let it take over the book.”
Turner said she’s passionate about the mystery and mechanics of writing fiction. Her fascination began after she read “Paris Trout” by Peter Dexter. The following morning, Turner wondered how Dexter’s writing had compelled her to keep reading until 3:00 a.m. the night before.
“I began to write a Southern family drama—yes, I know that’s redundant—featuring a thoughtful, plainspoken homicide detective named Billy Able. Working through that first draft, which by the way was just awful, I began my education. I read everything I could find on story structure and spent hours with retired detectives, who schooled me on police procedure. I revised chapters every day. Perhaps most important, I became a more astute observer of the city and the Southern culture.”
Turner’s work paid off because her family drama, “A Little Death In Dixie,” became a surprise best seller. When asked if a particular location in Memphis had compelled her to include it in a story, Turner didn’t hesitate. “There’s a famous dive bar called Earnestine and Hazel’s across the street from the downtown train station. The building was a pharmacy in the 30s, a brothel servicing WWII soldiers in the 40s, and then a 1960s cafe where blues, jazz, and rock and roll greats ate plate lunches of smothered pork chops, turnip greens, and cornbread.”
Earnestine and Hazel’s became a prominent setting in Turner’s second novel, “The Gone Dead Train.” The inspiration came after she and her retired-cop cousin walked there on a drizzling summer evening. Her cousin told her, “The whole damned place is haunted, Even the jukebox comes on by itself and plays songs to suit the situation.”
“While checking out a wall of musicians’ old promo shots, I noticed rain was pounding the pavement. The jukebox beside me lit up and played ‘I Wish It Would Rain’ by the Temptations. My cousin smirked at me and sipped his beer. Earnestine and Hazel’s makes a cameo appearance in ‘Devil Sent the Rain’ and will probably pop up in every book in the series.”