In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were murdered in West Memphis, Arkansas. During witness interviews, a playmate of the boys claimed that he had seen them being killed at “the playhouse” by “Satanists.” Despite the fact that the police never found a playhouse or evidence to corroborate the Satanist claim, the media reported that the children were killed as part of an occult ritual. Soon after, three teenage boys were charged with the murders and convicted—in part because of the young child’s story about what he had seen.
The West Memphis Three case caught my attention in 2011, when the three men convicted of the murders were released from prison. There are several unsettling aspects to the crime: the sheer brutality of it, the lack of closure for the victims’ families, and the knowledge that a vicious killer—or killers—has eluded investigators for decades. But, in popular culture, the West Memphis Three case is infamous for the failings of law enforcement and the legal system; many consider the convictions of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. the greatest miscarriage of justice of our time.
What has always stuck with me about the case was the child who told police he had witnessed his young friends being killed in the fictitious playhouse. Children lie all the time, whether for innocuous reasons, such as an overactive imagination, or more sinister ones—perhaps because an adult or authority figure told them to. While I was considering the lie that helped convict the West Memphis Three, I came up with the idea for a character: a young woman who, as a child, testified in a controversial murder trial that sent a serial killer to death row.
I never set out to write a crime novel with The Darkest Corners—the book slowly reveals one woman’s guilt over a small lie she had told as a child, and the repercussions a decade later. I didn’t anticipate that in the years after the partial manuscript sold to my editor, everyone would be talking about the subjects of two controversial murder trials: Adnan Syed and Steven Avery. Suddenly, the friends who raised an eyebrow over my Dateline obsession were enraptured by Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx. These binge-worthy true crime documentaries and podcasts are as addicting as they are popular—and maddening in their open endings. In many cases, the truth about the subject’s innocence or guilt is open for heated discussion.
When a person is murdered, the truth often disappears with him or her. The Darkest Corners started out as a story about a young woman confronting her past, but as I wrote Tessa’s journey, I realized she was part of something bigger: the desire for the truth that keeps us glued to our screens, desperate for answers we may never find.
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Kara Thomas is the author of The Darkest Corners, coming from Penguin Random House/Delacorte Press in Spring 2016. She also wrote the Prep School Confidential series (St. Martin’s Press) and the pilot The Revengers for the CW under the pen name Kara Taylor. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, or on the couch with her rescue cat, Felix.