06 September 2016

The Atlanta Child Murders and My First Mystery

I've been reading mystery fiction since I was a kid. I remember reading Nancy Drew at night with a flashlight the summer I was ten years old.  I started writing mystery fiction in 2001, first with a novel I didn't finish, then with a novel I did finish, and then with short stories, where I've had a nice amount of success.
But my first foray into the mystery writing world came long before that. When I was a kid, my mom and I always watched Good Morning America during breakfast. And in 1980 and 1981, we saw a lot of reports on the Atlanta Child Murders.

If you don't remember or know about this tragic story, here's the nutshell: Between 1979 and 1981, more than two dozen black children and teens, as well as six adults, were found slain in Atlanta. The killer was eventually caught, tried, and convicted, but before that, Good Morning America was all over that story. Each time another child was found dead, it surprised me, because with each death came more media coverage. Surely, I thought, the kids down there know to be on alert. They wouldn't go off with a stranger, especially now, given that a murderer was on the loose.

With hindsight, I realize that not everyone--particularly kids--watched the news as I did. But back then, as an eleven or twelve year old, I didn't realize that kids in the danger zone might be ignorant of that danger. So I tried to figure out how the victims could know of the danger and still end up in the clutches of the murderer. And I came up with a solution.

I blamed it on the mayoral candidates.

Around that same time, Atlanta was in the middle of a mayoral election campaign. This news was also reported on Good Morning America. And I thought, the murdered kids would know not to go off with a stranger, so the person abducting and killing them must be someone known to them, someone trustworthy. But who could be known to all of them? Being a kid who watched a lot of news, I figured it must be one of the candidates running for mayor. (Yes, I know, those poor children in Atlanta were probably not following the local mayoral race as avidly as I was--if at all--but back then, that idea hadn't occurred to me.)

I wrote an essay laying out my theory, and I showed it to my sister (who was then in college). She thought my idea was ridiculous. And in retrospect, it certainly had flaws. Indeed the man ultimately caught and convicted of killing two of the adults (and to whom many of the other murders were attributed) was not one of the mayoral candidates. But as a kid, I really thought I had something there.

If I were an adult when this was going on, I might have turned my idea into a novel. Doesn't the idea simply scream Thriller? (Indeed, several books and movies resulted from the Atlanta Child Murders.) But back then, I just had my essay. And I'm still proud of it. It was an interesting take on a horrific situation, as well as a hint of my future career writing about murder and mysteries.

So, writers, what was the first thing that prompted you to start thinking about mysteries and murders--solving them or writing about them? And did you write the first story that came to you?


  1. Interesting take on the Atlanta Child Murders, Barb. Definitely good fodder for a thriller.

  2. Thanks for the post here, Barb--and fascinating that you wrote your own end to the story, the seeds of a mystery writing career for sure!

    Have you ever read Tayari Jones' Leaving Atlanta? It's inspired by those killings, and I've taught a few times at Mason in classes on crime fiction and true crime writing (or writing inspired by true crime). I don't think anyone would label the book genre fiction; it's more of a coming-of-age story and very literary minded in many ways, with some overt stylistic experimentation. But it's a great read and I'd recommend highly.

  3. Interesting post, Barb. My first idea for a mystery came to me out of the blue, when I had no thoughts of becoming a mystery writer and was completely caught up in teaching and family. It was an idea for an academic mystery (naturally), with a plot twist I hadn't seen anywhere else (and still haven't). I didn't do anything with the idea for years, then finally decided to give it a try, not expecting to write more than a few pages. As it turned out, I wrote far too many pages, and the novel was much too long to be publishable. It had other flaws too, ones I didn't see then, but by the time I finished it, I was hooked and turned to writing stories. Some day, I hope to go back to that massive manuscript, cut it down, fix it up, and see what happens.

  4. Thanks, Paul. I still think a mayoral candidate would be a great bad guy in a situation like that. He/she has a reason to be in all parts of town, arguably is well known to everyone, would be seen as trustworthy, could insert him/herself into the investigation by demanding the police work harder or whatnot, and all the while, be the actual bad guy right there, hiding in plain site. Ooh, now I want to write it!

    Art, I hadn't heard of the Tayari Jones book, so thanks for the tip! I'll definitely add it to my TBR list. (My never-ending list. I fear I'll die before I read all the books I want to read.)

    And Bonnie, you definitely should go back and see if you can get that first manuscript into shape, if for no other reason than I'm curious as heck to see that plot twist. Go for it!

  5. How very interesting! My first chapter books were the Bobbsey Twin books when I was little so mysteries were a part of my life from early on.

  6. What a great first post. I'm so impressed that you not only watched but took seriously the news of the day when you were 12. How many kids can say that now?
    I became stalled in my juvenile writing career by the difficulty of making the line lengths come out even on my old manual typewriter. "Writing is hard!" I told my mom, who explained I didn't have to worry about that, the publisher would take care of it. Turns out THAT was what I needed to worry about!

  7. I'm glad it WASN'T one of the candidates, but golly, what a great imagination!
    Now, we'll be looking for that in a plot.

  8. Barb, I really think you could have been my kid sister - grin. Nancy Drew with a flashlight, indeed.
    I wrote my first mystery short story in 1991. It won the city of Mississauga Murder Mayhem and the Macabre contest. (I'd won a romance writing contest in 1989, but that was all about comedy.)
    You know why I got hooked on mystery? Those girls rocked! While nice girly girls were reading sweet romances and behaving like girls were supposed to, Nancy Drew was running the game. She was king of the street. Man, I wanted to be like her.
    Then I found out Agatha Christie was THE all-time most published author. Still is today. I'd found my role models. That's a post coming soon.

  9. Sherry, Vicki. Tonette, and Melodie, thanks for stopping by. I love how we all got started on mysteries early. And Melodie, I'm looking forward to your blog on role models.

  10. Like Sherry, my first chapter books were mysteries: The Happy Hollisters (my mom subscribed for us) and The Bobbsey Twins. Then on to my brother's Hardy Boys before I got my own Nancy Drews and Trixie Beldens. In fourth grade, our teacher gave us an assignment to use 12 words from our spelling review unit in a story. Mine had to be a mystery! I hadn't read Nancy or Trixie yet, so I ripped off the Hardy Boys. All I remember is I hid a jewel in a picture frame.

    Barb, your experience shows how well-informed and analytical you were at a young age. Still key characteristics of a great mystery writer!

  11. Barb, I think your hypothesis was pretty damn clever. Good for you!

    Tell me, when did you start working on the strange murder of an older college-age sister?

  12. SO interesting! ANd such a good idea.

    (Weird--I lived in Atlanta then, and at that time, was a reporter for WSB-TV. I covered that story every day…)

  13. Mo, Leigh, and Hank, thanks for stopping by!

    Leigh, I've written several stories involving feuding sisters. Despite my protestations, I believe my sister thinks those fictional sisters are us.

    And Hank, wouldn't that make a great thriller?! So cool that you covered that story. Only another reporter (former reporter) would think that's cool. My sister would call my attitude morbid. But, yes, so very cool! So, thinking back, would any of the mayoral candidates been a better bad guy than the others?

  14. Barb, great post - As a child, I read Nancy Drew, of course; and I was always trying to figure out the adults around me. But specifically... can't think of one. I just figured everything and everyone was a mystery.

    But my husband and I lived in Atlanta during the Atlanta Child Murders, and the various suspects I thought of at the time were a priest or pastor; a teacher or school staff member; or a bus driver.

  15. Those are all good ideas, Eve. Or the police chief. You'd hope kids would trust him or her, and the chief would have an excuse for being in any part of the city.

  16. I grew up on Nancy Drew mysteries myself. The originals are way better than the modern version they have of our amateur sleuth. Great idea for the story! Horrific if it had been true!

    1. Thanks, Steven, for your kind words. And thanks for stopping by.


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