In-Depth Conversation With Brian Lebeau About “A Disturbing Nature”
This spring, author Brian Lebeau will release his debut novel, “A Disturbing Nature” (May 10, 2022), a psychological thriller, set in 1975, about a prolific killer and investigator in post-Vietnam War-era New England.
When FBI Chief Investigator Francis Palmer and Maurice Lumen’s paths collide, a dozen young women are already dead—bodies strewn in the woods across southern New England. Crippled by the loss of their families and haunted by mistakes, they wrestle with skeletons and ghosts neither understands. Who is destined to pay for the sins of their fathers, and who will pay for their own?
In the following in-depth conversation, Mr. Lebeau introduces the key characters in the book, shares how he developed an interest in researching serial killers, and provides insights on why he wrote a plot set in 1975.
Before we jump in, can you introduce us to the two main characters readers will meet in “A Disturbing Nature?”
Maurice “Mo” Lumen is a young man, 24, with an intellectual disability. The result of a childhood “accident,” as he calls it, Mo has been permanently left with the mental and emotional maturity of an 11-year-old. Forced to move from his last home in Virginia to Rhode Island, he must learn to adapt to a new environment, working his first job and living without family for the first time.
As a member of the groundskeeping team for a small, rural college, and living with four college seniors in an on-campus townhouse, he is thrust into an environment for which he is ill-prepared. Using the Boston Red Sox march to the 1975 World Series as a means of communication, he will become friends with several housemates and coworkers.
These friends will seek to help Mo, but others are intent on ridiculing and abusing him. Through his childlike innocence, Mo tries to focus on the good, but he can’t shake the words and actions of some that threaten to resurrect the accusations and secrets he left behind in Virginia.
FBI Chief Investigator Francis Palmer has been with the Bureau for 20 years by the summer of 1975. He’s been involved in many of the most notorious mass murderer cases of the past dozen years, from The Boston Strangler to his most recent, The Campus Killer. Over the course of these investigations, Palmer has created an alter-ego, The Beast, to help him get inside the mind of the monsters he hunts down. His success has brought him celebrity, but at the cost of his family and his own well-being, as he tries to prevent The Beast from consuming him.
After returning from Salt Lake City, where he helped state police find evidence to finally put Ted Bundy behind bars, Palmer is assigned to an investigation much closer to home. The bodies of three young female victims have been found in Rhode Island and Southeastern Massachusetts, with another half-dozen missing by the time he joins the investigation near the end of September. Over the next three-and-a-half weeks, Palmer will be forced to confront his past, his weaknesses, and his greatest fears, The Beast threatening to take control.
What was your inspiration for this novel?
Thirty-three years ago, in 1989, while a graduate student at Clark University, I woke up from a dream. In it, I recalled, for the first time in more than a decade, a young man with whom I traded baseball cards when I was between the age of 9 and 11 in Fall River, Massachusetts. As part of this dream, much of what’s in “A Disturbing Nature” was laid out for me. I scribbled down several pages of notes that morning and worked on the skeleton of the story and the primary characters over the next 29 years before finally sitting down to write the novel in mid-2017. It has been an odyssey, to say the least. Oddly, I had written several novellas for future publication after I retired from business along the way, but chose to push forward with this work first.
Thirty-three years ago, in 1989, while a graduate student at Clark University, I woke up from a dream.
As for the young man from my childhood, he was a Black man in his early 20s who had had a massive seizure while in the seventh grade a decade earlier. The seizure left him with the mental acuity and emotional capacity of an early teen. I remembered going to his house to trade cards and look at his card collection, which included completed Topps sets all the way back to 1951. He was the primary reason for my lifelong hobby collecting baseball cards.
But I never really considered why my father went with me when I visited, even though I had plenty of friends my age with whom I would spend the afternoons at their houses without any concern from my parents. When I woke up from the dream in 1989, I was left wondering whether my father had gone with me because my very large friend was twice my age, intellectually disabled, or Black, the latter two becoming primary themes of the novel.
Even though your novel is fictional, did any real-life people or crimes help this story take shape?
I think all good writing comes from experience, so it’s fair to say that many of the characters and my interest in prolific serial killers both played a major part in the writing of “A Disturbing Nature.” The two central characters came from the two extremes. Maurice “Mo” Lumen was inspired by a young adult I knew growing up in Fall River, Massachusetts. I would trade baseball cards with him, though he was twice my age. He and his parents moved from their apartment across the street when I was about 11, hence the age of Mo when he had his self-described “accident” and why the book was set in 1975, the same year the Red Sox went to the World Series trying to end 57 years of drought. That World Series was maybe the most important time in my childhood.
Other inspirations for characters came from my four best friends in graduate school at the time the story came to me in a dream. Mr. Griffin was inspired by the owner of a seamless gutter company I worked for while in graduate school in Worcester, Massachusetts. Characteristics of other characters were drawn from people I know, or have known, while the rest is pure fiction.
For Palmer, I drew on my love of film noir from the 1930s, 1940s and early 1950s. I saw him as similar to Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” and his alter-ego, The Beast, as the always emotional James Cagney in “White Heat,” though clearly not to that extreme, at least not yet. The monsters are culled from one of my favorite movies and characters of all-time: “Night of the Hunter” with Robert Mitchum playing the role of Reverend Harry Powell.
Other inspirations for characters came from my four best friends in graduate school at the time the story came to me in a dream.
The writing style was meant to accommodate the two very different personalities of the primary characters, with Lumen’s written in an accessible, non-threatening way from the outset before growing darker as his story unfolds. Palmer is written in a more terse Raymond Chandler approach, with descriptions kept to a minimum and character nuance handled through extreme visuals. The two approaches collide as the two men are inevitably drawn together.
Much of the novel takes place in New England, including Fall River, Massachusetts, where you were born and raised. Some people may also recognize this city on the border of Rhode Island as the former home of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted for the murders of her father and stepmother. Why set this story so close to home? Did the legends surrounding the Bordens inspire you at all?
The unsolved murders of Lizzie Borden’s father and stepmother did not necessarily inspire the location; however, the story is used in a critical scene near the end of Part Two to help resurrect an important memory for Mo and make him ask some troubling questions. As part of the research for this novel, I visited each of the key settings with members of my team at Tangent Inspired Stories, a collection of creative and gifted individuals that have been brought together to support my efforts producing works of fiction in varied genres in the near future. The team includes editors, researchers and artists. Traveling as a team, we slept in the bedroom where the murders took place in Lizzie’s Borden’s Fall River home. I slept on the floor, on the opposite side of the bed from where Abby Borden was struck to death with a hatchet.
I set the story in and around Fall River because of the old adage – to write well, you should write what you know. I lived in Fall River for much of my first 30 years, taught as a part-time instructor at Bryant College in my late 20s, and went to school at Stonehill College and Clark University. All of these colleges are within an hour of Fall River. When I turned 31, I headed south to work in Northern Virginia and lived in Sumerduck, Virginia for four years before moving to Warrenton, also in Fauquier County, for another seven.
So, I used my memories of my time in Massachusetts and Rhode Island to inspire the present (1975) scenes in the book, and my time in Fauquier County to inspire the flashbacks and memories of Mo’s life in Virginia. The two settings also allowed me to explore the differing forms of racism in America from just before and just after the passage of Civil Rights legislation in 1965.
To many, serial killers are more closely associated with geographic areas like California (Golden State Killer, Zodiac, the Night Stalker), the Pacific Northwest (Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer), the midwest (John Wayne Gacy, BTK, Jeffrey Dahmer). Why did you set your book in New England? Was there something specific about the region that inspired you?
I think the decision to have a serial killer (called ‘mass murderer’ in 1975) loose in New England was one of convenience, parallel, and separation. In the case of convenience, I know the area well, having spent 30 years living there. I also felt it was important for the case of The Pastoral Predator to be as geographically removed from Palmer’s most recent case, The Campus Killer, so it made perfect sense to be on the opposite coast.
This underscored the material difference between the two killers and The Beast’s difficulty getting into the mind of the latter monster. Finally, I really wanted to distinguish The Pastoral Predator from his true-life contemporaries, so having him hunt in New England provided the perfect setting. As an aside, I can remember my parents talking to my brother and I when we were 10 to 12 about the sick men that were around, and to be careful of “Lester the Molester.” So, even if there wasn’t really a high-profile serial killer from that area at the time, everyone was getting the news and on high alert, even in New England.
…the decision to have a serial killer (called ‘mass murderer’ in 1975) loose in New England was one of convenience, parallel, and separation.
The specific things that inspired me about New England as a setting were fairly straightforward. I’m a born-and-bred New Englander, a diehard Red Sox fan for half a century, and enamored with the history of New England. As part of my research for this novel and a forthcoming psychological thriller, I slept in purportedly the most haunted rooms at the Lizzie Borden house, the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem, and the Inn at Mount Washington, New Hampshire.
I’ve always enjoyed 19th century tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, particularly “The Scarlet Letter” and the short story “The Ambitious Guest,” and though it wasn’t set specifically in New England, Washington, Irving’s location in upstate New York for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” just across the Connecticut border has always reminded me of a New England tale. I was looking to pull in some of the elements of puritanical religious fanaticism, myths and legends that spread throughout New England into the novel.
How and when did you get interested in researching serial killings?
I think for some of us there’s this morbid curiosity around things like war and death that leads us to explore some of the most extreme elements of humanity. Serial killers represent extreme personality traits that allow us to wonder what it would be like to kill others in horrific ways, and war is the opposite extreme, whereby the killing is often viewed as righteous and glamorized. I’m also very interested in the histories and stories surrounding World War II, so much that I visited many of the key locations in the European Theatre, from Normandy to Warsaw, as well as key sites in Italy and Morocco.
By trying to understand what motivated people like Hitler and Himmler (among many others) to devalue the lives of others and make them expendable, I became interested in the psychology of serial killers. In effect, the exploits of the most prolific serial killers are dwarfed by those of the most demonic despots in history.
Why did you choose to set your novel in the 1970s?
Not particularly. The choice to use 1975 was entirely due to it being the year I was 11, Mo’s intellectual age, and the Red Sox going to one of the greatest World Series ever played. Initially, the story was entirely from Mo Lumen’s perspective and there was no reason to incorporate serial killer history from the period. But, as Palmer’s character grew from an important secondary character to a primary lead in parallel with Mo, the connection to serial killer history from that time became necessary to understand his background and his demons.
I think it’s safe to say nobody gets as deeply involved in hunting down the types of monsters he tracks, without having their view of the world altered. I thought it would be interesting to explore one hypothetical path with Palmer. Despite what some will think, Palmer is not based on any famous FBI agents from that period who were instrumental toward developing and deploying behavioral analysis and profiling as an integral part of FBI investigations. Instead, Palmer is just a chief investigator who takes advantage of all the tools at his disposal, including profiling, and is the best there has ever been.
The reader may also note a strong tie to World War II in the novel and frequent use of war-like language when discussing characters. This is intentional, as the story is effectively a Post War (Post World War II) story of America, from the years following the end of the war to the years following the end of America’s innocence with the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Mo’s experiences parallel that of America, and so do Palmer’s as he switches from hunting down escaped fugitives to mass murderers in 1963.
In the 1970s, research into serial killers helped law enforcement develop criminal profiles — basically, shared traits among serial killers. Did you look to these criminal profile studies to help develop your characters?
Very much so, for two important reasons. First, I wanted the serial killer in New England to differ dramatically from others of the time, yet still have common elements outside the aggregate. I felt this would make it more difficult for The Beast inside Palmer to recognize this monster and make Mo, as a suspect, more sympathetic. Second, I wanted many of the experiences in Palmer’s life to parallel the suspect Mo’s, so the issue of how fine a line there is between man and monster could be explored.
Criminal profiling was not the main emphasis in the novel. Rather, it was the use of these, still primitive, tools and the extraordinary methods of Chief Investigator Palmer. There is clearly a hero inside Palmer, beyond what the news reports, but he is deeply flawed. Mo, as a Christlike figure, is also a hero, but in a very different way. I’ve often thought of it in the context of a question: If someone lacked the killer instinct in service, business or sports, under what conditions would they change, and would they — anyone else — truly benefit from it? In essence, it’s quite possible winning may not always be the best thing.
Even though your work is fictional, was it important to you to create an authentic portrayal of serial criminals and their victims in the novel? Why?
Absolutely. The novel tries to be historically and geographically accurate throughout, with few deviances to support the fictional narrative. The locations used exist as they would have in 1975 and the historical events have been researched to align with the story. This includes the serial killers discussed in the novel between 1963 and 1975. Very little artistic license was imputed to support the fictional character Palmer’s involvement in the Ted Bundy investigation; however, the circumstances and timelines of that case are incorporated as accurately as possible otherwise. In all other references to serial killers, the timeline and nature of their crimes were included accurately.
Because there is always some debate about specific facts of cases, as there is for Ted Bundy, it can sometimes be difficult to parse the truth from the speculation. So the Thirty-Six Hours Title to Part One and Thirty Punch Buggies Title to Part Two represent the universally accepted boundaries of Bundy’s victim count, as well as the overt count for hours remaining until a World Series Champion is determined (and to the end of the story), and the 30 punch buggies Mo counts on the last leg of his journey to Rhode Island. In contrast, the Thirteen Cigarettes title to Part Three is an ode to the Boston Strangler’s presumed count in addition to the 13 cigarettes in Palmer’s ashtray. These represent, in reverse order, Palmer’s most recent and first serial killer cases before the Pastoral Predator.
As I’m sure you know — true crime podcasts, documentaries, TV shows, etc. — have become increasingly popular in recent years (allowing many of us closeted true crime fans to embrace our somewhat odd interest!) Why do you think that is? Do you have a favorite true crime podcast/documentary/TV show?
I think there’s always been a broad-based interest in true crime and human tragedy in history. This could be seen in the movies about World War II in the 1940s and 1950s, or more recently, the Vietnam War movies of the 1980s and 1990s. With the general availability of DVDs and video stores on every corner starting at the very end of the 1970s and peaking in the 1980s and early 1990s, series like “Faces of Death” became popular themes and spawned other graphic content in the gore porn industry.
The rise of podcast media has clearly addressed special interests in a way that is consistent with many topics that would have been previously considered odd, or even taboo. Though I’m not a dedicated fan to any true crime-related podcasts, I did occasionally listen to two several years ago: “Crime Junkie” and “My Favorite Murder.” I would listen to episodes on long driving trips and kind of enjoyed them.
But ultimately, I’m really a fan of documentaries. I have probably seen most documentaries about Ted Bundy and other serial killers like John Wayne Gacy, Jeffrey Dahmer and David Berkowitz, to name a few. This grew out of an insatiable interest in World War II footage after seeing “The World At War” narrated by Laurence Olivier, the seminal 1972 documentary.
As for television series, I watched “CSI,” or “CSI: Las Vegas” as it was also known, when it started two decades ago, but never really had the same interest as I did for documentaries. That said, I can definitely understand the long-standing popularity of shows like “CSI” and its spinoffs and other related shows like “Cold Case” and “Without a Trace,” both of which came out shortly after the original “CSI.”
Given how heavy the subject matter is in your novel, did you find it difficult or need to take breaks? Do you have any advice to writers who are approaching intense subjects on how to keep a healthy mindset?
I believe maybe the only advantage to taking nearly four years to write a novel like “A Disturbing Nature” may be the ability to step back and reflect on the personalities of the characters and some of the intense subjects that arise from storytelling. While the work is truly fiction, there is a lot of soul-searching that goes into an honest portrayal of a character.
There are elements of both Palmer and Mo that come from my own experiences, and even if they may not be the most intense elements, they still require some real introspection. For many of the characters, I would envision them being physically around me as I wrote, basing them on people I’ve known. It’s funny that I saw “The Man Who Invented Christmas” in late 2017 when I was just starting to write some scenes. It showed me, at least hypothetically, how Dickens treated his characters and I realized it was much like what I was experiencing for most of mine.
It told me I might not be entirely insane. But for the two lead characters, it was all introspection that resulted in the way they feel and behave. That was a great deal more difficult. At times, I would find myself becoming emotional based on what was happening to the character or reflecting on my past to gain insight into the motivation of the character.
In many ways, the writing experience has been daunting for me. It generated tremendous stress, both in terms of engaging in a new career and having to learn a new craft. I had no prior experience writing, so I engaged editors, a writing coach and one-on-one tutorials from a best-selling thriller author. I recognized that, unlike many young and hopeful writers who have time on their side and can learn by trial and error, I had the advantage of resources from a successful business career. The stress of delving into these characters and dealing with very unpleasant topics only added to that. It’s always scary to venture into the unknown wilderness, but I wouldn’t change anything.
My advice to writers approaching intense subjects is to fully embrace them and make them real. I think the genuine challenge of anything worthwhile is to face our greatest fears, looking ourselves in the mirror and discovering who we are and how we became that way. Everyone has an image of the person they hoped they’d be when they were young, and deal with the reality of who they’ve become as their life plays out. It can be hard to look at ourselves from the eyes of others.
Many of us try to mask who we really are from those around us, either to be accepted, succeed or hide; creating alter-egos and trying to manage the perception separate from the reality. At Tangent Inspired Stories, we start from the premise: “We’re all messed-up, and we spend a lifetime trying to hide it from everyone else.” (Note: I’ve changed the actual word to the more family friendly “messed-up” for the general audience.)
Most people would not want to have their real thoughts put on display in an uncensored way for everyone else to view, lest they reveal the bigotry, hypocrisy, anger, and fear that connects us all. So, in short, my advice to aspiring writers would be to really let go, embrace the inner Beast and childlike awe that hides inside all of us, and let others see the types of things you think about. And it doesn’t all have to be bad, but rather a personal view of the world. And, finally, accept yourself as you are. You’re likely no more messed up than anyone else.
Your book touches on complex issues including race relations, psychological disorders and social justice. Why were you interested in exploring these subjects, specifically racism in the post-Jim Crow laws era, in your novel?
I think my education background in social science helped me question and try to understand behavioral patterns. I know it aided me in my professional career before writing, and that experience helped create, hopefully, more realistic characters by trying to delve deeper into their thought patterns, even for those who have dangerous minds.
I was born shortly after the Kennedy Assassination and shortly before the passage of Civil Rights legislation that effectively ended legal segregation in the Jim Crow era. Given my age, I grew up largely shielded from the Countercultural Revolution and the Great Society. In addition, the neighborhood demographics for Fall River, Massachusetts, particularly the south end of the city, left me largely isolated from Black friends and families. It wasn’t until I watched the news with my father in 1975 and the nightly updates on the busing issues in Boston that I became more aware of race issues. By the time I arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1982 to attend Marquette University, I was behind in my understanding of city demographics, urban economics and the social inequity of public programs.
Possibly the two most eye-opening events of my life occurred within my first three days in Milwaukee. The first happened the morning after I arrived. I went for a walk alone to look for Miller Park where the Brewers played, but I walked east instead of west, going through the brewery section of town.
As I stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s just north of the city center, a young Black woman asked me to wait for a minute when I went to place my order. It was very early, and there were no other customers in the store when her manager, also Black, came out to tell me that he could not serve me because I was in the Black part of town and that I should head west immediately. He gave me a handful of game tickets that McDonald’s was distributing with purchases back then (each had two halves of U.S. bill denominations and prizes that customers could try to match and win) and sent me on my way.
A second, equally surprising event occurred a couple of days later, when I went for a walk with a first-year student from Nairobi, Kenya. As we walked west of our dorm, McCormick Hall, around dusk, he turned to me and said, “We should head back now, there’s a lot of Black people here.” I turned to him and said, “But, dude, you’re black as the ace of spades.” To which he responded, “I may be black, but I’m no (N-word).” He went on to tell me that they get the American news in Kenya and see how violent the Blacks are in the U.S. This experience underscored how racially insensitive even our media was at the time.
It may have been too ambitious for a novice writer, but I was really intent on writing a novel in the vein of “To Kill A Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn.” Of course, it would be foolish to compare myself to Harper Lee or Mark Twain, but I thought I’d take a shot at doing for the post-Jim Crow laws era what Twain did to portray antebellum America and what Lee did to portray the Jim Crow era.
For me, “A Disturbing Nature” is a postbellum work in the aftermath of World War II, when Blacks came home from fighting and still faced segregation and unequal treatment. I wanted to explore the years leading up to the end of America’s innocence with the Kennedy Assassination, the fight for Civil Rights and the Countercultural Revolution and address where we were in 1975, a decade later. To do so, I considered the distinctions between the treatment of Blacks in America during the Jim Crow era and the racism that still persists.
The sins of Mo’s father, grandfather and their forefathers have been passed on through colorful stories of the “black-haired critters” of Tinpot Alley that walk upright but speak nonsense, and his father’s words of caution about Black neighborhoods and listening to “Negro nonsense.” Despite Mo’s childlike innocence and apparent acceptance of Black people, there are deep-seated fears around his being one of those “black-haired critter”s floating down the Rappahannock that emerge as things grow increasingly bleak, leaving him to wonder if his father would save him if he were to float down the Rappahannock.
Finally, I should mention that the issue of race relations in America is paralleled to society’s treatment of intellectually and physically disabled individuals during the same time period. In the same way that much in the initial Civil Rights legislation of 1965 fell well short of creating equality of opportunity in America, the treatment of intellectually and physically disabled individuals in America was largely overlooked by Johnson’s Great Society and public resources were not allocated proportionally at that time.
The result was fewer facilities to deal with intellectual disabilities and mental health disorders; which, in some cases, lead to dangerous individuals, even serial killers, being out on the streets. Genuine efforts in terms of broad-based political support to address mental health issues in our society did not begin until the mid-1970s, and in the wake of the first significant wave of serial killers.
I was deeply moved by Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” released in 1975, when I watched it as a young adult because exposed some of our society’s shortcomings with respect to the humane treatment of persons with intellectual disabilities or mental health disorders. The issues still exist today as evidenced by homelessness in America.
As with the treatment of minorities, the treatment of non-hospitalized individuals with intellectual disabilities or mental health disorders often glosses over the substantive efforts required to truly effect change. The issue of homelessness is treated differently in the shrub-lined wealthy communities than it is in the urban centers.
And that says a lot about inequality in much the same way as access to quality public education is different in wealthy suburbs when compared to an impoverished inner-city, predominantly minority neighborhoods. I thought Mo would become a more sympathetic character through this parallel. I also think it resulted in one of the most thought-provoking scenes in the book which occurs when Mo’s father cannot see the hypocrisy of his words as he pleads with the school principal not to end his son’s schooling so that he would not be treated like a second-class citizen, working for slaves wages alongside Blacks doing menial jobs just because he’s different.
What can we expect from the rest of this series?
Well, without giving anything away, I believe readers can expect answers provided for mysteries that are still open at the conclusion to “A Disturbing Nature” and close much larger arcs across the four books that have opened or will open. It is safe to say that all characters from “A Disturbing Nature” are candidates to be explored further in subsequent books of the series. In the second novel, “An Anxious Resolution,” expected to be released in 2023, we’ll follow four non-serial paths that provide background and perspective, both in terms of explaining the ending of the first novel and moving forward with Palmer.
All four novels were laid out during the writing of “A Disturbing Nature” to ensure all storylines are addressed and closed. Old mysteries will be solved, and new mysteries will emerge to take their place. Along the way, Palmer and other central characters will grow, fail and survive, in many cases. I hope that readers will enjoy the unconventional points of view in “An Anxious Resolution” and the use of first person narrative in book three before settling on a surprising third-person perspective in the fourth and final book in the series. While “The Echo of Whispers” series will end at four books, FBI Chief Investigator Palmer will continue to solve major crimes and battle demons in future novels. And he will continue to grow, as we all do.
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