Friday, January 27, 2012

The Murderer's Ladder and True Crime: An Interview with Dianna Graveman

On January 11, 2012, I wrote about Erle Stanley Gardener's development and use of the Murder's Ladder in creating his world famous mysteries--such as the Perry Mason mystery series.  In that blog, I asked, "What if The Murderer's Ladder is that applied to real life?"  Today the Writer's Lens is talking with Dianna Graveman, who has been working on a True Crime Novel.  Dianna Graveman is a St. Louis editor and writer with a portfolio of more than 150 publishing credits, 19 writing awards, and four regional histories. She holds an MFA in writing and a bachelor’s degree in education and has taught both graduate and undergraduate writing students at several area colleges and universities. She will be teaching a workshop on getting published for the St. Charles School District Adult & Continuing Education Program on Tuesday, January 31, 2012. You can find info here:

She will also be giving a workshop, “Freelance to Finance Your Writing Career” for the Southeast Missouri Writers Guild at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau on Saturday, January 28, 2012.
Graveman launched 2 Rivers Communications & Design in 2011 and provides business communications, online media solutions, and author services to area businesses, publishers, and independent authors. Contact her at

The Writer's Lens: Thank you for taking time to discuss this with us. You are a published author of historical pieces regarding local townships, however you are now working on a true crime novel. Do you find that conducting research into a true crime book to be any different and how?

Dianna Graveman: Yes. When we (my coauthor/husband and I) were doing research for pictorial histories, we mostly relied on previously published books and archived documents. Even regarding the more recent photos we included in the books, the people with whom we talked either had vague memories, or their memories of when and how events took place varied from person to person.

With the true crime, which took place in the late 1960s, I am trying to talk to as many live sources as possible—people who were involved in some way at the time the crime occurred. Still, their memories about the how, why, what, and where differ, especially after all these years. So I guess in that way, the research is not much different than what we did for the regional histories.

WL: In the blog post on January 13 in The Writer's Lens, I talk about The Murderer’s Ladder, which was a device used by mystery author Erle Stanley Gardner in creating novels such as Perry Mason. Do you find that the real-life criminals that you are investigating seemed to take the same 10 steps? 

DG: I think they took many of the same steps, but not all. One criminal in this case hired a killer to eliminate someone who would testify against him. The other made the hit. So they both had motivation. The hired killer obviously had temptation (money). He had to make a plan, although I think he was young and inexperienced, and the plan was probably very shoddy, which is why things went awry. I’m still researching opportunity and first steps, and I don’t want to talk about the killings yet. The flight lasted (off and on) several years and involved several escapes, but as far as I know at this point, there was no cover up and no false suspect. I’m hoping to learn more about overlooked clues and loose threads that I think probably exist in any true crime—at least it seems that way to me after talking to several officers (and watching a bunch of crime shows!).

WL: I don’t want to give any of the secrets away to anyone at this time about the book you are writing. However what was the motivation behind the crime in which are investigating? 

DG: Self-preservation for one party (the one who hired the killer), and monetary gain for the other (the hired gun). As I mentioned above, one of the convicted parties was to appear in court (I won’t say on what charges), and he wanted the person who was to testify against him taken out of the equation. Sounds like a bad TV movie, doesn’t it?

WL: How do you think that the motivation actually moved the criminals in to taking that irrevocable step to committing the crime?

DG: Well, I think self-preservation is a pretty strong motivator—maybe the strongest, even more than money. However, money has motivated more than a few criminals, too. This crime involved both.

WL: When you are investigating a true crime book, do you feel like you are taking on the role of the detective and having to apply criminal psychology or its understanding to what you're writing?

DG: I feel like I’ve  adopted several roles during the early stages of research: that of reporter, jurist, prison security, victim’s family member, detective, and plain old small-town cop. I expect I’ll take on other roles as I try to decipher the information I’ve found—possibly even family member of the killer himself—what was his family like? How did he end up the way he did? What drove him to this? Or was he just a “bad seed,” if there is such a thing?

WL: Time is said to distort the memory of witnesses and their observations. Do you find that when you go back over court records of witness testimony and that you have spoken to those witnesses, now several years after the fact, that their testimony seems to deviate at all? 

DG: So far, those who were alive at the time of the killings and involved somehow with the victims—either personally or professionally—seem to offer pretty consistent accounts. Aside from retired police officers and several older adults, many of those with whom I’ve talked  were very young at the time (as was I), and a lot of what we all think we remember might be what we actually read in newspaper accounts or overheard from adults who discussed the case within earshot. I have copies of every newspaper  headline (or media mention)  about the crime, from the front page account that was printed just hours after the killings until today. Some of those reporters’ early accounts contradict each other or contradict later reports. Some of the details they reported don’t make sense to me, based on what I know today. But it’s amazing to me that newspapers were able to get information out as fast as they did  before the advent of the Internet. Today, this event would have made national news within minutes.  Even so, the story hit newsstands within  a few hours. I don’t know how they did that. It stands to reason that some of the reported details might have been inaccurate.

WL: While working on a true crime book, do you find that the  witnesses and the perpetrators seem to be unwilling to share their information with you and your investigation or are they open to discussing it?

DG: Time will tell, as far as perpetrators go. I’ll let you know. Everybody else I’ve talked to who was involved with the case (including law enforcement) has been extremely open and supportive—even calling me before I’ve had time to track them down myself. I have a personal connection to this case, and I have been candid about that when I talk with others. So far, that has (I think) encouraged people to open up to me more than they might have otherwise. I do want to talk to many more police officers, mainly to help me understand what might have actually happened, in light of the reporters’ early (and possibly erroneous) accounts.

WL: Does the perpetrator, if you talk to them, seem to have changed his story over time? If so, how do you think the story has changed in the representation of the motivation that took the criminal past the point of no return?

DG: According to a newspaper article that was published several years ago, the killer has changed his story. I can’t comment on that yet except to say that the article angered some people who felt it was a very one-sided personality profile that glorified the convicted murderer. Why did he change his story—and why did he wait several years to do so? I hope to find out.

WL: I know that the true crime book in which you are working on has not been published yet, but what was one of life-changing things in your research that you discovered as impacting you as a writer and as a person?

DG: I have found that I am a lot more interested in police work and procedures than I ever thought I was—almost to the point that I wonder why I didn’t consider law enforcement as a career. Possibly, it’s because when I was starting out, it was not a typical career for a young woman to choose. But I also don’t think I have the courage. One of the reasons it has taken me so long to get this far in the book is I keep stopping and starting. What if I get something wrong? Will I have the support of the police community? What if I don’t have the courage to interview the killer? Or should I even consider it? Recently, I met one of the victims’ sons, who said to me, “I’m glad you’re doing this.” That motivated me to get past the fear and get moving.

WL:  How could my readers learn more about you?

DG: Right now, anyone can find me on Linkedin, Twitter, Facebook, or my blog. Eventually, when I’m comfortable with the progress I’ve made, I’d like to set up a website and/or blog to talk about this project with others who remember the event.

Thank you again Dianna! I am looking forward to reading your true crime book.

Thank you for reading and please visit and Fiction is the world where the philosopher is the most free in our society to explore the human condition as he chooses.


  1. Thanks, David, for doing this interview! You've motivated me to keep moving forward.

  2. This sounds like an interesting case, and it's obvious you're being very diligent to get the facts straight despite the passage of time. Thanks for sharing your insights on the true crime writing process with us!

  3. Dianna, sounds like an interesting story and I can't wait until it is published! Nice interview David!

  4. Dianna, yet another genre and research project. I will be interested to read this book. Thanks for the interview, David.

  5. Hi Dianna and David,
    Fascinating. I look forward to learning more about the project and reading the book.
    Donna Volkenannt

  6. Wow, Dianna, that sounds like an engrossing project. Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can help you with contacts in the law enforcement profession. Two of my long-term friends, who happen to be law enforcement administrators, are fellow writers and I imagine they would be open to meeting with you if you want to bounce any ideas or anything.

  7. Janet, thank you! I'm sorry i just saw this comment, but I really appreciate the offer. I will probably be in touch! David, Linda, Lynn, and Teresa, thanks for your kinds words! And of course, thanks to David.