In this interview, author Ed Humes shares how he became a true crime novelist, where he finds inspiration, and what he’s working on now. From his first book on the kidnapping of a student in Mexico, to the true story of a mother who has been potentially falsely imprisoned since the 1990’s for the death of her three children in a fire, to his newest book on using genetic genealogy in the case of William Talbot, due to be out later this year.
Laura: Hi, we’re here today with Ed Humes. Ed, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background?
Ed: Well, I’m an author and journalist. I started out as a newspaper reporter for about 10 years of my career. Several different papers. I covered the courts, environment, science, and the military were the things that I specialized in. I had an opportunity to take a temporary leave to write my first book and it became a not so temporary leave, because I’ve been doing that for a while now.
Laura: That’s remarkable! I think that’s the dream for every writer.
Ed: Yeah, it has some advantages, because you know, you set your own schedule, but when you’re living from book to book, it’s also you’re singing for your supper every time you come up with an idea and say, “I want to do this.”
Laura: That’s absolutely true. Can you tell us a little bit. What was your first book? What is your latest?
Ed: My first book was called Burning Secrets, which I’ve since learned any crime book can be called that, because it’s such a great title. But that was set on the border of the Mexico and the U.S., and it concerned a kidnapping of a student who was on spring break. It implicated very high officials in Mexico. There’s turf battles between NDA and Customs to see who was going to solve the crime. There was devil worship and cults and drug smuggling. It kind of had so much going on that it needed a book to tell the story.
Laura: Wow! Had you been reporting on that or was it something you were interested in?
Ed: That was what I took my leave to write about. My publisher said, “We need somebody to do this book. You’ve covered the courthouse. You’ve covered the Night Stalker Murders (not the original Night Stalker murders, the one we ended up calling the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez), and we think you’d be perfect for this.” And I was ready to dig in, and it was my first experience writing narrative length crime stories, where I was going for the feel of a novel, but you know, it’s a true story. There was larger issues as well as the lurid crime, so it had it all.
Laura: Wow, what was that like? How did you make the transition?
Ed: It was a learning experience. I mean, the interview skills, the research skills are all directly applicable, but you need to… I realized that if you want to build a character, you need to ask absurdly and extensive questions of people, and it’s shocking how many people say, “Yeah, I’ll tell you that.” In order to recreate a scene, to understand the motivations of characters (both the good guys and the bad guys). I talked to everybody.
Laura: Wow, that’s amazing. Was there anything very surprising about it?
Ed: The first book? Many things. This Miami born Cuban American person named Adolfo Constanzo became a devotee to some very dark, magical religions. And he claimed he could predict the future, could ensure criminal enterprises would never be caught, and he had people as high as Chief of INTERPOL for Mexico among his followers giving him information, which guaranteed he could elude capture for his criminal enterprises, because he had such highly placed adherence.
Laura: Wow, that’s unbelievable. So now you’ve written 15 books, I think? So what’s the latest?
Ed: Well, my most recent book is called Burned. It’s a return to true crime writing. After 5 or 6 books, I went into some different things. Environment, science. I wrote a book about the modern-day Scopes Monkey Trial that was in Pennsylvania a few years back that was fascinating. So, I had to learn how to write intelligently about evolutionary biology, which doesn’t come into normal journalistic training. But, Burned is a crime story. It’s a 1989 fatal fire in Los Angeles, in which three children were burned to death. Young children. And, the only survivor was their mother who said she couldn’t get through the flames. It was initially thought to be an accident, but later investigation determined that it was arson and that it was murder by fire. She’s been in prison since the early 1990’s, and my part of the story begins recently when the California Innocence Project challenged the conviction and presented an expert review of the science used then, which wasn’t really science, they were just making this stuff up, and that is a huge problem with many arson cases form that era. Things that were done in good faith, the forensics they were doing was wrong. It was based on lore and belief rather than in any kind of scientific research. So, part of the book is also about forensic science and the correcting role that DNA science… The first truly science-based laboratory originated forensic technology and the correction it’s applied to the system for the more venerable and less scientific forensic practices, so that’s kind of part of the reason why I’m here.
Laura: I was gonna say, it’s a fascinating story, and it makes sense why you would want to come to ISHI. It’s your first year, correct? Yeah, so what are your thoughts so far?
Ed: Fascinating. What drew me here is the book I’m working on now that won’t be out until next year. It’s one of the genetic genealogy cases that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Golden State Killer, which is one that’s already been tried as a result based in Washington. It’s got everything that a journalist wants in a story. You have a poignant human story, a fascinating hero in the form of the cold case detective who worked on this case forever, and then the genetic genealogy component. I came to that not because of the merit, but because I was already interested in the subject of the family DNA testing craze and how that is leading to all kinds of unintended results. This was before any use of it in a criminal case, and I was already sold, but I needed to find a way to tell the story, and everybody’s aware of what happened next. So, that’s the book that I’m working on now, and this conference has been super helpful in terms of meeting people who were in the thick of things, and figuring out the policies moving forward. I met what may be the only, well now former, but head of the crime lab, the state crime lab who is also an accomplished genealogist. I think she’s the only one. Maybe people out there can correct me if I’m wrong. I’d like to hear if there’s others.
Laura: You know, it has been an evolution. Familial DNA, we’ve been talking about that for years. Genetic genealogy, the last couple of years, has absolutely exploded. How did you pick this story you’re working on now out the many stories out there. What’s your process?
Ed: You know, it’s the conceit of every writer. If I’m interested, surely everyone else is. You always look for a good story, and for me, writing non-fiction, and I think this is true for many fiction writers too, you want a compelling character and uniquely fascinating circumstances. And crime just happens to be something that not only people are interested in reading about, or watching, or hearing podcasts about. Interest has exploded in that, but there’s a reason, because, and I know this from being a courthouse reporter back in my newspaper days. Virtually any story, any issue, any conflict that’s important to society eventually finds its way into the courtroom. It’s always a goldmine for storytellers, and I’m usually looking for stories that have all those elements. Bringing them together. The big issue, and the human context. The human drama.
Laura: Yeah. Can you tell us what the case is?
Ed: Oh yeah, well everybody here knows about it. The prosecution of William Talbot in Snomish County, Washington, which has had a number of these genealogy solved cold case crimes, because there just happens to be one detective there with gumption and foresight, and no funding, or anything else, but he’s found ways to get it done and use the expertise that’s developing, that’s out there, to make arrests in these cases, and that alone peaks my interest. He’s an interesting man, and the families of the victims, the Oncollunberg (sp.) family and the Cook family from Victoria, Canada, I’ve met all of them and spent time with them. Can you imagine 32 years ago, their children take a trip to Seattle, to the big city for just one overnight and never return? And then, 30 years later, it’s suddenly all back, in their immediate visceral way, when they get a phone call saying, “Guess what? We finally made an arrest in the case.”
Laura: And there really has been the power of genetic genealogy as we’ve seen it so far. We have a number of people speaking or attending here. You know, Barbara Rae-Venter, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Margaret Press, CeCe Moore. Everybody wants to talk about it, so a deep dive would be very interesting to read. When will it be out?
Ed: Next year. Finishing it before the end of the year. My editor’s told me so.
Laura: Any bits of wisdom that you’re going to use that you’ve taken from the conference so far?
Ed: Oh quite a bit. Well, mentioning Barbara Rae-Venter, I had a wonderful conversation with her and think we’ll have some more in the future. She’s knowledgeable and wonderful and delightful. CeCe Moore has also been really open and terrific. The Doe Project folks and they have great stories to tell, and there’s a number of things that I’ve learned, and I have an abundance of riches that I need to sort through to find all the right material to include. It’s a nice problem to have.
Laura: It is a good problem to have, and we’re so happy you were able to attend. It may be too early, but what’s next for you then?
Ed: That is what’s next. I’m always looking for the next good idea, though, but that gets filed away. I was still working on Burned when this was unfolding, and I knew I wanted to pursue this, so…
Laura: Well, you’ll have to come back next year. Maybe we’ll have some more ideas for you.
Ed: That’d be great.
Laura: Ok, that’s so wonderful. Thank you so much for taking time out. We really appreciate it.
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