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Talking Location with author Roger Johns – Baton Rouge, Louisiana
31st August 2018
#TalkingLocationWith... author Roger Johns, writer of River of Secrets set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
A Dangerous Place for Dangerous Stories
I’m a practitioner of the dangerous-stories-in-dangerous-places style of crime fiction. A persistent tension hangs over a dangerous story situated in a dangerous place. The reader is constantly on edge because the arrival of terrible events is expected more or less constantly: Things like that happen in places like this all the time.
If something bad isn’t happening right at this moment, the next moment, or the one after that, could very well be the one when it does. Readers know it’s coming and they wait uneasily for its arrival.
Baton Rouge, Louisiana is a lovely and wonderful town. I lived there for a decade, some years ago, so I know. But like its big-city cousins––New York, L.A, Miami, Chicago––certain features make it a prime location for dangerous stories. Because of that, I’ve set my Wallace Hartman Mysteries there.
First, there is that river––the river––the Mississippi. Water from virtually every creek, brook, bayou, canal, and stream west of the Appalachians and east of the Rockies will eventually find its way into the Mississippi and by the time it gets to Baton Rouge the volume is staggering. Because of the levee, it’s mostly out of sight and often out of mind, but it’s never ever forgotten.
The river is a brooding, perilous presence that glides past the city along a rare straight stretch of riverbed. The many marsh islands and oxbow lakes that litter its course are evidence it’s had lots of practice jumping its banks and scouring away everything in its path. Just knowing the behemoth is ready, willing, and able to come roaring up over the levee fuels a persistent low-level dread––a latent uneasiness that maybe certain parts of town might be living on borrowed time.
This leads, in a roundabout way, to my second motive for setting the books there. The river is the reason there is so much smokestack industry in Baton Rouge. It’s not just the drainage ditch of the North American landmass, it’s also a long and storied commercial highway from the Gulf of Mexico into the heart of the continent. A lot of productive capacity is situated along its banks and much of this is north of the capitol building.
Over time, this has produced a cultural separation between the industrial, working class northern part of the city and the wealthier southern part. After college, I went to work up in the northern reaches of town and quickly discovered I was unprepared for what I saw there.
The tough-guy kinds of things I had read about in gritty novels or seen in hard-edged movies actually happened . . . right in front of me . . . on a daily basis. What I had experienced only vicariously on the page and screen played out for real among the men and women I encountered during my two years in that job. This left a deep impression on my young psyche.
For me, though, the borderland areas between north and south Baton Rouge are the most interesting. Social and economic norms are more up-for-grabs. An anything-can-happen atmosphere prevails there, just as it does in similar parts of other cities.
I also have a slightly self-righteous reason for setting the books there. Most stories that take place in Louisiana are set in either New Orleans or Cajun country. Baton Rouge felt neglected––never given the respect it deserves––and I am determined to do my part rectify this. I loved Baton Rouge when I lived there and I still do. It has a fabulous and complicated personality. For my money, it’s the perfect place to set a mystery.
Roger Johns is a former corporate lawyer and retired college professor, and he is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books: Dark River Rising(2017) and River of Secrets(2018). He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective ▪ Mystery Category), a 2018 Killer Nashville Readers’ Choice Award nominee, and a finalist for the 2018 Silver Falchion Award for best police procedural. Roger belongs to the Atlanta Writers Club, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, and Mystery Writers of America. He is a member of The Fearless Bloggers and, along with four other crime fiction writers, he co-authors the MurderBooks blog.
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