May 2011 Issue
Partner in Crime
Novelist Lisa Black finds murder, mystery and mayhem in Cleveland.
One of the most gruesome chapters in Cleveland's history is repeating itself, and forensic scientist Theresa MacLean finds herself in the thick of it. Seventy-five years ago, a madman nicknamed the Torso Killer terrorized the city by committing at least a dozen known homicides over a four-year period. He was never caught. Now, a series of copycat killings replicating the handiwork of the “mad butcher” have put Clevelanders on pins and needles once again. And, to complicate matters further, a decades-old decapitated body has recently been unearthed in a building that was abandoned years ago.
Could this macabre new discovery shed light on the identity of the original Torso Killer? Can MacLean crack the case of those long-ago murders that flummoxed even legendary crime fighter Eliot Ness? Will the present-day perpetrator be brought to justice?
Lisa Black wouldn’t have it any other way.
Since 2005, the Strongsville native has been penning suspense novels set in and around Cleveland. For her fifth book, Trail of Blood
, Black decided to take readers back to the era she finds riveting, and revisit the town’s most mystifying crime story.
To ensure more than a modicum of authenticity in her first historical novel, Black painstakingly researched what Cleveland was like in the 1930s, ranging from the price of a tuna sandwich, to which Fiestaware pieces were popular with housewives, to what was served in soup kitchens. She delved into the history of the railroads that traversed the city (which many thought the killer used as getaway transportation), and discovered how Ness’ illustrious career crumbled after he failed to find the orchestrator of the grisly murders.
“The Great Depression was a pivotal time in our country’s history, and we’re seeing a form of that again in today’s economy,” Black reflects. “For many of us, our whole identity is caught up in our jobs, and when those jobs are taken away, it’s like we’ve lost part of ourselves. The emotions are always devastating, powerful and something so many of us can relate to.
“And,” she adds, “when you combine what morale was like back then with the fact that America’s version of Jack the Ripper was loose in Cleveland, you have a gripping story that easily captures everyone’s imagination.”
As Black discusses the plots she’s constructed, it’s clear that each book serves not only as a love letter to her preferred literary genre, but also as heartfelt homage to the years she spent working in the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office in the ’90s. Like the women in her novels, Black analyzed gunshot residue, clothing, hair, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and trace evidence found on bodies and at crime scenes to decipher potential clues.
Clearly, her profession is not for the faint of heart. But she loves every minute of it.
“My time at the coroner’s office was busy, incredibly stressful and intense,” she recalls.
“But,” Black adds, “every day was an adventure.”
In 2000, when her husband, Russ, got fed up with lake-effect winters, the couple pulled up stakes and moved to The Sunshine State. Although she’s worked as a latent fingerprint examiner for the Cape Coral, Florida, police department for the past 11 years, the novelist says her heart will always be in Cleveland.
“I never felt like I belonged anywhere like I belonged there,” she explains. “I’m comfortable in Cape Coral, but it’s not just the same.
“The happiest five years of my life,” Black adds, “were spent in the morgue.”
While childhood friends played with Barbies, Black spent her formative years writing mysteries based on the programs she never failed to miss.
“My dad and I watched every cop series on the air — “Adam 12,” “Perry Mason,” you name it,” the 47-year-old says, recalling the happy hours she spent with her father, a distribution supervisor at Republic Steel, as they compared whodunit notes in front of the TV.
Her favorite was “Ellery Queen.” Set in the 1940s, the NBC series starred Jim Hutton as the title character who, when he was not writing them, helped his New York City police detective father solve mysteries. Although the show lasted only one season, it made a big impression on the budding author.
“I wanted to be a detective just like Ellery Queen,” Black says. “It seemed to be the kind of job where you worked your own hours, and then you’d call everybody into the library and tell them who committed the crime.”
Black went on to earn a bachelor of arts degree in political science from John Carroll University, and spent 10 years as a secretary before heeding her true calling: She returned to college and earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from Cleveland State University. The goal: to land a job in forensics.
“There are not a lot of openings for non-police detectives, so this was the natural choice for me,” Black explains. “I always liked science, and forensics is the best of both worlds.”
Her only regret is that her father, Stanley Becka, did not live long enough to see his daughter fully launched in the career they were both fascinated with.
“He died of a stroke five days after I started at the coroner’s office,” Black says wistfully. “Dad would have loved all this.”
Although deeply immersed in the world of true crime, Black’s passion for creating her own stories never waned. The idea for writing books took hold during the years she spent in the secretarial pool.
“Since I sat in front of a word processor all day, I thought, ‘What the heck. I’ll write a novel. How hard can it be?’” Black recalls with a laugh.
The answer was, difficult. Very, very difficult. So difficult that six of the manuscripts she authored during that period — not all of them mysteries — remain tucked away in the back of her closet, “where,” she says firmly, “they probably should stay.”
Black’s commitment to the written word deepened after she moved to Florida. In fact, it became her solace, as she put her protagonist in the places she missed most, including the West Side Market, The Flats and the downtown branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
“Suddenly, I had no job and no family and friends nearby,” she says. “I found that writing kept me sane. Since I had a forensics background, it just made sense to apply it to the mystery format. That was around the time ‘CSI’ premiered, so my stories took off.”
And, while she’s on the subject of “CSI ” — the fast-paced, action-packed TV drama about a team of investigators trained to solve crimes the way Black is — there are a few fallacies that need to be cleared up.
“Misperceptions on the show? There are about a million,” Black says. “For starters, you can’t just sit in the hall and wait for DNA results to come instantaneously. And only the FBI has a national fingerprint database, and it would have to be a pretty major case for them to become involved.
“Also, we don’t wear skintight clothes and low-cut designer sweaters. And, since we’re working around blood, bleach, disinfectant, black fingerprint powder and just plain dirt, we never wear anything we’d be upset about if it got ruined, because it probably will at some point.
“With that said,” she adds, “ I don’t want to knock ‘CSI.’ I enjoy the show, and I understand the producers have to make it look exciting every single minute of the day. Which, of course, no job is.”
Her first and second novels, Trace Evidence
and Unknown Means
, were published by Hyperion under her real name, Elizabeth Becka, and centered on the escapades of forensic expert Evelyn James. When the author signed with William Morrow in 2008, she adopted the pseudonym Lisa Black (based on a nickname and the desire for her moniker to remain near the top of alphabetical book lists). She also changed her protagonist’s name to Theresa MacLean in honor of thriller author Alistair Mac-Lean. Black admits she pours much of her heart and soul into her heroine.
“We’re both in our 40s and have close relationships with our mothers,” she says. “I like to say Theresa’s just like me, only smarter, stronger, faster and divorced.”
As Black puts the finishing touches on her fourth MacLean novel, Defensive Wounds
, in which the forensic scientist investigates a series of murders at downtown Cleveland’s Ritz-Carlton hotel, she reflects on why her books resonate with fans.
“When I created the character of Theresa, I really wanted her to be a grunt,” Black says. “I wanted her to be someone who has to do the dirty work on the job, whose boss doesn’t appreciate her, who has more work than she can handle. I wanted her to be just an ordinary person, not some kind of superwoman genius.
“I think readers like her,” she muses, “because they can see themselves being friends with her.”
Lisa Black will be one of the featured authors at the Ohioana Book Festival this month. For more information about the
festival, visit ohioanabookfestival.org. To learn more about Lisa Black and her books, log on to lisa-black.com.