Release Date: May 15th, 2018
Before the words “white supremacy” filled the airways, before we learned of American Nazis and the alt-right, before there was a Muslim ban, before we considered building a wall or knew what DACA stands for, there was eugenics—a pseudo-science that promoted the belief that a race could be improved by controlling who was allowed to mate with whom.
It was eugenics that compelled white doctors to inform Carl and Betty Langard that their new born baby had died. And it is the cruelest of circumstances—the murder of Jennifer Rice—that fifty years later leads Shep Harrington to search for Baby Langard.
As Shep soon learns, the quest brings him to the top of a slippery slope with an ill-defined edge. Question begets question, and the slide down the slope proves inevitable: What happened to the baby? Who took it? Why was he taken? And who killed Jennifer Rice?
When Shep learns that Baby Langard was born at a hospital run by Alton Nichols, a famous Virginia eugenicist, he is drawn into the dark history of the American eugenics movement and its proponents—the so-called “gene police.”
Using Animals to Add Depth to a Scene
Cute animal videos routinely garner large audiences. Stories of animals suffering from cruelty, neglect or other misfortunes can illicit tears from even the most hardened individual.
A character's reaction to an animal or an animal's reaction to a character can add depth to a scene. In my Shep Harrington SmallTown® Mystery series, I use cats not only as elements of the setting, but to convey information and insights about characters and human nature.
For example, in Lonesome Song, the fact of Reilly Heartwood's death is made more real by the reaction of a cat:
The open casket was at the end of the room. A stray beam of sunlight danced across Reilly’s waxen face. I watched as a male tabby cat appeared on the closed end of the coffin. He walked confidently toward Reilly’s head, his tail raised in a question mark. When the cat was half way across the coffin, his gait slowed and his tail twitched nervously. He continued to move forward in a crouched position, until he came to the edge of the opening. The cat stepped gingerly on Reilly’s chest, his head bobbing as he took in the scent of the dead body. He looked up, his mouth open—it was the feline’s way of tasting what he had inhaled. A moment later, he was on the floor, scurrying away. I could see by the fluff of his tail that he had encountered something frightening. I wondered if the brave tabby would spread the news to the others that Reilly had used up his nine lives and was no longer of this earth.
In Chain Thinking, Shep (my protagonist) refers to the cruel treatment of a cat to question the relationship of humans with God:
Howard Doring had justified testing on animals by declaring that humans were made in the image of God. .... How about the sick person who coaxed a lovable old cat like Van Gogh to approach, then violently slashed off his ear? I thought of Van Gogh and how he had probably run happily to the human who called to him. I imagined how he swiped his attacker, a feline gesture that means “good to see you.” I wondered what Van Gogh would say about humans, to humans, if he could speak. How do humans, knowing the cruelty we as a species are capable of, stake claim to such a relationship with the Supreme Being?
In The Gene Police, cats again are used to reveal the troubled nature of the character Willet:
“I know who you are,” replied Willet angrily. “I’m not stupid. I’m just fucked up. Paranoid delusions and tremors.” He nodded as if confirming a thought. “Yeah. I took drugs. Fucked me up good.” With his gun, he motioned toward the bunkhouse and Robbie and I turned and walked to the door. As we stepped inside, Willet yelled, “Hands on your head!”
A moment later, the four kitties surrounded his feet.
“They won’t hurt you,” I said.
“I know that. People hurt people. People hurt animals. I prefer the company of cats to any humans I’ve met.” To my surprise, he knelt down and rubbed each cat behind the ears. I considered tackling and disarming him, but I was afraid I might break all his bones.
Willet put the gun down and slid it over to where I was standing. “I don’t know if the gun actually works. Anyway, it’s not loaded. I can’t afford bullets.” Willet laughed as one of the cats butted its head into his chin. “These creatures calm me. They tell me something about you. I think I’m okay for the moment."
Letting animals show attributes of a character helps to engage the audience by introducing non-humans into the human drama. While the same information could have been conveyed through the thoughts and/or actions of a human character, involving animals in these scenes adds depth while showing more and telling less.
Elliott Light, a lawyer and an engineer, is the author of the Shep Harrington SmallTown® Mystery series. His newest book, The Gene Police, will be available May 15. Visit his website at or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
About the author:
I am a retired patent attorney living in Florida with my wife, Sonya, and our feline, Tsuki. I spent most of my life in the Washington, D.C. area. I grew up in McLean, Virginia before the beltway was constructed. Some of my classmates in grade school lived on nearby farms. McLean had a small town feel to it. Gossip spread without the Internet. Party lines were common. Secrets were hard to keep.
When I was in my early thirties, my life pivoted when I was accused of a crime I didn't commit. My defense counsel and I discussed plans for my likely indictment and possible imprisonment. I could expect to be handcuffed and paraded in front of the media. This experience with the so-called justice system ended after a two year ordeal without an indictment and without going to trial. Even so, it could have ended differently.
Sadly, I will never fully believe that prosecutors, investigators, or the government are as interested in the truth as they are in getting a conviction, an attitude that I share with the semi-fictional Shep Harrington.