Under Investigation: Mindy Mejia on the living and the dead in rural communities

We go behind the scenes of rural life in The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman

Posted on August 21, 2017 in Under investigation

 The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is a murder investigation set among the secrets and lies of a claustrophobic small-town life in the American Midwest. Here, author Mindy Mejia tells us about the incident that sparked the novel and how real communities shaped her story. 

When I was young I used to spend a week every summer on my grandparents’ farm. One day on our way out of town, my grandmother nodded toward an empty field and said, “That’s where those two guys wandered out in a snowstorm and one of them killed the other.” It was a transformative moment, marking the influx of shadows into my carefree, barn cat chasing, field-tramping life. For years afterward, every time we passed that place, I stared at the curve of the hill and wondered where exactly it happened and why. I imagined the darkness, the blinding snow, the empty horizon on all sides.

Thirty years later I still think about that car ride, but what strikes me now is how she spoke of it, her matter-of-fact tone, the complete absence of emotion as she played witness to a tragedy so close to her home. I began writing The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman, a psychological thriller that dives underneath the veneer of that stoicism to try to understand how a murder impacts a small, rural community like my grandparents’. What I found is that they endure, they survive, they weather the horror without any of the fuss or sensationalism so common in larger cities. This was never more evident than when I finally found a tiny write-up of that long-ago crime in the archives of a local newspaper. A few paragraphs gave me the details of the murder–the victim was treated with ‘particular cruelty,’ suffering nineteen incised wounds and eight stab wounds–as well as the judge’s sentencing–thirteen years in prison–but the most revealing thing about the article was its placement in the paper. The sentencing news came after an extensive write-up about how the local farm kids’ animals placed at the state fair competition, and just above a report of the other incident in town: the unfortunate meeting of a car and a cow.

This is what I love most about research, how you find unexpected beauty and connection. I’d gone looking for answers about a crime that had haunted my childhood, and found instead the same spirit my grandmother had shown me on that car ride back to her farm. I found a community that celebrated the living, and refused to create a spectacle out of violence. This, then, is what I brought to the page. The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is as much a story of piecing together the facts of Hattie’s brazen life as it is of solving the mystery of her death. I hope my grandmother would have approved.

The Last Act of Hattie Hoffman is out in paperback on 24 August 

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