Literature

Little Things Count in Stephanie Kane's New Crime Book, Object Lessons

Frances Glessner Lee's "Blue Bedroom" diorama.
Frances Glessner Lee's "Blue Bedroom" diorama. Lorie Shaull at Wikimedia Commons
What's scary? It’s often the little things. The sigh in the night. The stranger falling in step behind you. A creak. A slam. A sudden shiver.

Now Denver crime writer Stephanie Kane is back with a new book all about literal little things: crime-scene dioramas that end up potentially inspiring a string of Mile High murders. The book, Object Lessons, is the third in her Lily Sparks art-world series that began with A Perfect Eye and continued with Automat. The new novel is set to launch in bookstores on Friday, October 15.

As with her last couple of books, Kane is publishing these through her own imprint, Cold Hard Press. “I was first published by Bantam and Scribner, but got out of publishing for about ten years,” Kane says. “When I went back in 2014, I didn’t have an agent, didn’t have a publisher. I did get a three-book offer from a small mystery house, but it became clear to me that I knew publishing better than they did. Which was really scary. I was all too aware of how little I knew, and if I knew more than them? Not a good feeling.”

Kane isn’t the first author to strike out on her own, and she won’t be the last. “I just decided to hell with it," she says. "I’ll embark on this self-publishing thing. It’s a steep learning curve, but I do love learning curves, and there are people who make it work.”


Learning is part of Kane's writing process, too. “I’ve gotten much more compressed,” she explains. “It’s been an evolution in my work that I really appreciate. I look back at the first three or four books that I wrote; they’re twice as long as what I write now, but it’s the same amount of story.” Kane attributes this minimalism to a newfound attention to prose on the sentence level. “Every word has to count,” she says. “It’s been a natural progression.”

click to enlarge STEPHANIE KANE
Stephanie Kane
Like Kane’s past Lily Sparks books, Object Lessons is set in Denver. “I need a concrete place to let my mind and imagination run free,” Kane says. “I need to be anchored in a real setting.”

Those Denver settings play an important part in the organic growth of the narrative. “There are places in town I’m still dying to write about,” Kane says. “There's this place out by the Platte River where there used to be slaughterhouses. There’s an artist studio out there, and I went out there to just scout it out, and a guy came out smoking a cigarette. He rented an art space there, and he was telling me about a lamb slaughterhouse that had been there, right behind where he had a studio. And at a certain time of day, you could hear it, these lambs being slaughtered. What a great setting. I was going to use it in another Lily Sparks, but it was just too dark.”

Not that Kane shies away from darkness. Object Lessons was inspired by — and uses to great effect — the miniature crime-scene models of Frances Glessner Lee. “Her dioramas actually went on tour, on public display for the first time at the Renwick Gallery at the Smithsonian," she says. "My husband and I were the first in line to get in, but the place was mobbed. Throngs of people from schoolchildren to retired cops with their wives, pointing out the clues in the details. There’s one of her dioramas I can’t get out of my mind. Usually her stuff is just one room — a bar, a garage. This is a little three-room house. The parents are shot to death in the bedroom. And there’s a baby’s room, blood on the wall above the crib to show the child was killed, too. And the murder weapon is a rifle, and it’s laying on the kitchen floor. The doors are all locked from the inside. So it can’t be a murder-suicide, and nobody broke in. It’s a complete enigma.”

Kane’s appreciation for the delicate craft of Glessner Lee doesn’t stop with that single mystery. “They weren’t necessarily meant to be solved,” she notes. “The whole point of them was to train cops to be observant and pick up clues. But what sticks with me isn’t the fact that it’s impossible to solve. [Glessner Lee] created the dolls, even knit stockings for her little victims with straight pins instead of knitting needles. That’s how fine the work was, and how obsessed she was with it. It’s a great lesson for writers about setting and authenticity.”

click to enlarge COLD HARD PRESS
Cold Hard Press
That lesson shows in Object Lessons, with its focus on Denver crime and miniatures; the connection of the human psyche to small versions of the world in which we all live has a powerful draw, Kane suggests: “It’s all about power and control. If you think about a snow globe, you can see anything. The entire universe. And then if you hold it in your hand and you shake it, you can make it snow. Or model trains, grown men who put on engineer’s caps and fill their basements with yards and yards of tracks and switches.

"It’s about power and control when maybe you don’t have that in other aspects of your life," she concludes. "It’s about the fantasy of being godlike. So it really isn’t much of a stretch to conjure up a killer who’d be triggered by these intensely perfect little slices of gore. There’s something really heady about what miniatures brings out in you.”

Object Lessons, Stephanie Kane’s third book in her Lily Sparks series, launches on October 15; Kane is scheduled to speak at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference that runs from October 15-17 at the Renaissance Hotel in Denver.
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Teague Bohlen is a writer, novelist and professor at the University of Colorado Denver. His first novel, The Pull of the Earth, won the Colorado Book Award for Literary Fiction in 2007; his textbook The Snarktastic Guide to College Success came out in 2014. His new collection of flash fiction, Flatland, is available now.
Contact: Teague Bohlen