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Simone St. James' new thriller puts a newlywed couple at the center of a murder case

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Honeymoons are supposed to be times of love and connection. But in the novel "Murder Road," a wrong turn puts two newlyweds at the center of a murder investigation, and that's just the beginning of the twists in the thriller by bestselling author Simone St. James. She joins us now. Welcome to the program.

SIMONE ST JAMES: Hi, thank you for having me.

RASCOE: So the story centers on this couple that just got married, and there's more to both of these characters than immediately meets the eye. Can you tell me a little bit about April and Eddie and where they are at the start of the book?

ST JAMES: The book is set in 1995, and April and Eddie have just gotten married the day before. They're driving to their honeymoon in Michigan. They're going to a lakeside little cabin. And they take a wrong turn in the middle of the night, and they end up on a strange road in the dark, and they see someone on the side of the road who needs help.

And I kind of enjoyed, when I wrote it - you know, you start it out, and you have these two characters, and there's one type of person who will stop, and there's one type of person who will keep driving. And so I thought, well, who are these people, and who are these characters, and what choice will they make? And if you're driving with your new spouse, your brand-new spouse, do you know what decision that person will make?

RASCOE: Yeah. Both April and Eddie - they seem to be running from their past in different ways.

ST JAMES: Yeah.

RASCOE: And they end up in Coldlake Falls, this town, and they get accused of killing that hitchhiker they picked up.

ST JAMES: Right.

RASCOE: But they don't cut and run even when they can. Like, what do you think it is about both of these characters that makes them want to take on the mystery of this stranger's death?

ST JAMES: Eddie, the husband, is a war veteran, and he's just got back from a deployment, and he's got his own demons, his psychological PTSD-type demons, that he's trying to work through. And April has had a pretty tough life and a pretty rough upbringing, and she's a tough cookie. And she has some things she's told her husband, and there are certain things that she hasn't told him yet, and she's not quite sure how to bring it up. So both of them are in this situation, and they have to rely on each other in, basically, a life-and-death situation. Both of them want to figure out what happened, and it's a moment where they realize that they really are in sync more than they even thought they were.

RASCOE: You're an avowed fan of true crime, and I guess true crime was around in 1995, not in the way that it is now.

ST JAMES: Right.

RASCOE: But you do end up with, like, some kind of true crime truthers in this book.

ST JAMES: Right.

RASCOE: Like, how much true crime content do you consume yourself? And, like, what's the appeal for you?

ST JAMES: Yeah, I do love true crime. I can't do true crime, like, on too steady a diet for too long because it is pretty dark, and it can...

RASCOE: Yeah.

ST JAMES: ...Get very dark. And I do feel like over the years that I've consumed true crime, I've put a lot more thought into what I'm consuming and try and - it's not that I've stopped consuming it, but just try and be thoughtful about, like, is this kind of exploitive, or does this across any lines, or do I feel uncomfortable with how this particular true crime story is being handled? But I do love it.

And it was around in 1995 'cause, you know, the true crime writer Ann Rule was writing her books in the '80s and the '90s, and she was mega bestseller. It just wasn't as accepted, actually, as it is now because it became very mainstream in the last 10 years or so. And in the '90s, it was kind of mainstream, but it was sort of like - you would buy an Ann Rule book, and you would read it, but there was no community of people to talk to about it because it felt weird to talk about murders. So you just didn't talk about it, but you just quietly read your book on the beach or whatever you did.

RASCOE: Yeah. Now everyone can find each other, and they can also come up with, you know, all of their theories and this and that.

ST JAMES: Right.

RASCOE: Why do you think that true crime - why do you think it's so appealing?

ST JAMES: It has a really broad appeal to women, I think, because true crime is a way for women to sort of process how they would react and how they should react in different situations, and it's a way for them to process maybe situations that they've been in without having to talk about it directly or think about it directly. They can look at this other type of crime and go, well, I don't know what I would have done in that situation. And I think that that doesn't get a lot of recognition. I think that women do a lot of processing and understanding of the world around them through consuming true crime.

RASCOE: It seems like a lot of this book centers on identity - like, the identities that we put on, the identities that we shed, and how much we get to define who we are versus having other people define us. Like, am I right about that? Was that on your mind a lot when you were writing?

ST JAMES: Yeah, there is a lot about that. And coming into this town and what people think of them, there's a lot of - because the book is told from April's point of view, so you're kind of in her head. So she knows - she's trying to figure out how people perceive her and how she makes sure to come across to people. She changes her demeanor for different people. She can be charming. She can be quiet. She knows when to be quiet. She knows when to be bossy 'cause she's a bit of a survivor.

RASCOE: Another big part of this seems to be about people who are, like, on the fringes of society and are easily cast aside or forgotten. The victims of what turns out to be a string of murders in this town are mostly people passing through without...

ST JAMES: Right.

RASCOE: ...A lot of ties.

ST JAMES: That is one of the themes, and it's one of the reasons I set the book in 1995 because pre-internet, you could get truly lost. There's no cell phone. There's no GPS. You know, April is pulling the map out of the glove box and trying to unfold it and figure out where they are on a paper map. So that ties into the theme of people who are lost, being lost and not just being superficially lost but truly lost. And that's something that we don't truly have anymore. You could get lost now, but it's very different, and you have to have a - you know, you have a digital footprint, and you had - you would have to erase your digital footprint.

But it was very easy back then to just be lost. And I wanted to touch on that theme of being lost and who's lost, and how do you get out of that state? And it becomes very hard to solve these murders because these young people were passing through town, and it even takes time to figure out who they are and call their parents and - how long have they been gone? And nobody even knows. And it just sort of added to the atmosphere for me and added to the suspense and the tension and the mystery, as well.

RASCOE: You know, no spoilers, but this book does touch on the supernatural. And, you know, these sorts of books - they can go both ways 'cause they can stay really locked into, like, real-life drama, like police and murder investigations. But then they can also veer off into the unexplained, the paranormal. Like, what do you like about going into the supernatural, otherworldly direction?

ST JAMES: Yeah, all of my books do have a supernatural element to them, which, you know, I think people should know going in, but I love adding that element to my stories. I think that it adds a really cool layer to a suspense story. And, you know, speaking of the '90s, like, I grew up on really cool shows like "The X-Files" and "Supernatural" and "Buffy The Vampire Slayer," and those types of shows always had, like, a supernatural element that was really fun and really creative and could go in any direction. And you never knew, with an "X-Files" episode - was it going to be, like, gory or more sci-fi or more suspense-y (ph). Or, like, it was - it had different tones, and they were really creative with it. And you just don't see that as much anymore, and I really miss it.

RASCOE: Now, you said earlier that there are two types of people - the person who would stop, you know, for someone on the side of the road late at night and someone who wouldn't. So I want to ask you, like, if you saw a strange woman on the side of the road at night on a deserted highway, would you pick her up?

ST JAMES: See - that's a good question. I don't know. I like to think I'm the kind of person who would stop. I will say that it's a bit different for a woman alone at 2 o'clock in the morning.

RASCOE: Yes (laughter).

ST JAMES: But, you know, I live in this time, so I would say that I would probably call the police - is probably what I would do...

(LAUGHTER)

ST JAMES: ...'Cause - on my cell phone because I don't live in 1995 anymore.

RASCOE: Yeah. I mean, even with a man with me, I would probably be, like, don't you stop (laughter).

ST JAMES: Yeah. You know, let's just...

RASCOE: Yeah.

ST JAMES: ...Call the police.

RASCOE: That's Simone St. James. Her new novel is called "Murder Row." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ST JAMES: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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