Lisa Turner's fictional Memphis is very much like the real one. The author, whose second crime novel, "The Gone Dead Train," was published last month by William Morrow ($14.99), grew up and lives in Memphis, and her descriptions of the city mostly stick to the facts while also revisiting the legends.
The book opens as Detective Billy Able sits down for a beer at Earnestine & Hazel's on South Main, where, "The jukebox was famous for spontaneously singling out a man and speaking to his pain." (The "haunted" E&H jukebox also gets credit for its mind-reading abilities on the Memphisghosts website.)
Turner's novel plays out in Memphis locations including 201 Poplar, Court Square, Summer Avenue, AutoZone Park and Beale Street, including Itta Bena restaurant above B.B. King's, with its signature blue-tinted windows and black-and-white photographs of Tina Turner by the late Jack Robinson. In a book ever conscious of its place, one character hides an important clue in "Hellhound on His Trail," by Memphis native Hampton Sides, about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Memphis, of course, provides the backdrop to other crime novels -- John Grisham's "The Firm," famously, and Daniel Friedman's two books about the 80-something retired MPD detective Buck Schatz, "Don't Ever Get Old" and "Don't Ever Look Back." In the latter, you will find such obscure historical notes about the city as the fact that Clifford Davis, for whom the federal building at Poplar and Front was named, was not just a congressman, and Memphis public safety commissioner, but also an avowed member of the KKK.
"The Gone Dead Train," in addition to being saturated with Memphis lore and atmosphere, also takes a reader into the realm of the magical African-Caribbean religion of Santeria. Turner says her research on the subject relied on her cousin, the late Lt. James Flatter, a cop for 30 years who worked for the Monroe County Sheriff's Office in Key West, Florida.
The plot bursts into motion with the sudden, consecutive deaths of two blues musicians, who are the victims of Santeria curses. At least that's what Officer Frankie Malone, who grew up in Key West, believes. She finds a conjure bag filled with a mixture of eggshell, coal and parts of a wasp nest with one man's body, and convinces Detective Able to go with her to the abandoned South Memphis house where the musicians had been squatting. There Frankie recognizes evidence of curses -- pictures of the two men pierced through by black candles and surrounded by gray hair. "That room, those clues, some of that is the set-up that my cousin would walk into at a death scene," Turner says. "They're either deadly curses or they're meant to ward off curses."
The officers also find a jacket with photographs sewn into the pocket that date back to the civil rights era. Those pictures, which have the power to compromise the legacies of important figures in the civil rights movement, drive the plot.
Turner's cousin is not only on her book's dedication page, he's also the model for a character in the book named James Freeman, a vigilant friend whose trust must be earned. "My cousin would sit at the bar at Huey's Downtown and he'd look at the mirror at the room behind him," Turner says. "He'd say to the bartender, 'There's about to be a problem at table five,' and soon it would happen."
She also talked to Memphis detectives, lawyers and investigators, she says. "A female patrol cop was one of my copy editors. I write scenes and ask them to read them, and they'll say, 'That's how I would do that.' I find out if my scenario works."
Turner and her husband, Rob Sangster, currently split their time between Memphis and Nova Scotia. She previously worked with her mother in the family business, Designer's Choice Interiors, and published her 2010 debut novel, "A Little Death in Dixie," with Debra Dixon's local Bell Bridge Books. Offered initially as a free ebook, "Dixie" was a fiction-writer's fantasy come true. It went to the top of its Kindle category on Amazon for several weeks, trading places for No. 1 on the list with "Mockingjay," the third book in The Hunger Game series.
After that response from readers, Turner got a call from the literary agent Robert Gottlieb, whose clients include Deepak Chopra, followed by a two-book deal with the William Morrow imprint of HarperCollins.
Turner wrote on a blog that the title of her new book was inspired by a tornado and the location of her Memphis home near the Norfolk Southern tracks.
"One morning I was sitting on the floor in my office, surrounded by books, news articles, and scratchy, old photographs of blues players buried two decades ago. But this story was worrying me. ... While I was sitting there thinking, the room suddenly darkened, strange since the windows had been full of light moments before. The wind picked up with a storm blowing in hard from the west across the river. Then the tornado sirens went off. We don't have a basement, so I chose a book of blues lyrics meant to be read as poetry and settled in a chair far away from the windows. The sirens wailed as the wind tore at the oak in our front yard. The book opened to a song by King Solomon Hill. A train whistle blew as I read the title, 'The Gone Dead Train.' I got the chills," she wrote.
"I had my title and an opening scene with Red Davis, a down-and-out New Orleans bluesman waiting at midnight for a train he would never catch."