Murder Books is pleased to present an interview with Jonathan F. Putnam, the author of the Lincoln and Speed Mystery Series. After the release of the first book in this historical novel series, the critically acclaimed, These Honored Dead, MurderBooks is looking forward to Perish from the Earth, available July 11. Jonathan received an undergrad degree in history and a law degree from Harvard and works as a trial attorney specializing in commercial litigation, often involving disputes over patents or trademarks.
MurderBooks: Although cops and lawyers have experiences that make for great mystery stories and do a great deal of writing in their professions, few can make the transition from just-the-facts-ma’am police reports and legalese-filled legal briefs. How did you make the transition to writing mystery novels that readers want to read?
Jonathan: It took a lot of hard work – and rejection – over a five-year period before I finally had my first book accepted for publication. Although I knew a lot about the law from working as a trial lawyer for twenty years, I knew a lot less about creative, compelling writing. But after many false starts, I realized I had developed one very important skill as a trial lawyer that directly carried over to my new profession: story-telling.
MB: So good attorneys do more than just present facts to a jury?
Jonathan: Any good trial lawyer is a good story-teller, spinning a tale about the case that his or her audience (the jury) finds compelling and holds their interest, with a beginning, middle and end, and featuring a good guy (your client) and a bad guy (the other side’s client). As a lawyer, when your client hires you, he or she automatically becomes the hero of your story, and the plot you relate at trial involves organizing the known facts in a way as favorable to your hero as possible.
It’s pretty much the same for a writer, except that as a writer, you begin with a blank page. No one identifies the hero or tells you what the story is about, to say nothing of the beginning, middle or end. On the one hand, after working as a trial lawyer for twenty years – all the while telling someone else’s story – the chance to tell my own story was incredibly liberating. At the same time, it was terrifying.
MB: The premise behind your series, with Abraham Lincoln as a main character, is intriguing. Can you tell us about your other character and his background?
Jonathan: On April 15, 1837, the young, unmarried Abraham Lincoln, newly sworn into the bar as a junior lawyer, walked into a general store on the frontier in Springfield, Illinois and sought to buy bedding (a mattress and sheets, etc.). The shopkeeper was a young man named Joshua Speed. After Speed realized that Lincoln couldn’t actually afford the bedding, he invited him to share his room, which was upstairs from the general store. The two men ended up living together for four years, and Speed remained Lincoln’s closest friend for the rest of their lives.
What makes this real-life friendship so interesting to me is that, in many ways, Speed was Lincoln’s direct opposite. Lincoln was born in a one-room dirt-floor log cabin to an uneducated father and a mother who died when he was six. Speed was the second son of a wealthy family from Louisville, Kentucky. Speed’s father was a prosperous planter and judge, who owned a large plantation on which he raised hemp through the forced labor of some sixty African-American slaves. Lincoln was self-taught; Speed attended the best private schools and even a few years of college before deciding to strike out on his own. Lincoln was, of course, strongly opposed to the institution of slavery; Speed and his family’s wealth was a direct product of that institution.
MB: Where does history becomes fiction in your series?
Jonathan: In my series, young Lincoln and Speed are a kind of Holmes and Watson of the American frontier. Lincoln plays the role of the great man, solving mysteries through his work on his legal cases. Speed is the Watson figure, the best friend, roommate, and occasional sparring partner of the great man. Together, they fight to bring justice to the frontier.
MB: After studying history as an undergrad at Harvard, you probably became quite adept at researching the past. How much research do you have to do for your books?
Jonathan: I enjoy reading historical mysteries because you get a sense of what it was like to live and breathe at a certain moment in the past. My books are set on the American frontier of the 1830s. It was a fascinating place and time – of great fortunes and great poverty, of economic booms and depressions, of open barrels of busthead whiskey and long-barreled dueling pistols, of mob violence and great heroism, of the original American sin of human bondage.
To make this era come alive for my readers, I do exhaustive research for each book. I track down many original sources, like old newspapers, oral histories, and diaries. I read a lot of books about Lincoln and his life and times.
MB: Ah, the life of a writer—reading books, newspapers, and other materials, and then sitting at a keyboard and pounding out a story. Do you ever break free of your desk?
Jonathan: I also visit the actual locations where my books are set. For my new Lincoln and Speed mystery, Perish from the Earth, I knew I wanted to follow Lincoln out onto “the circuit,” where he and his fellow lawyers and a judge would ride from town to town in a horse-drawn carriage, bringing justice to frontier Illinois. In researching the towns of the circuit, I stumbled upon a spectacular real-life murder — one of the most infamous and consequential murders of the 19th century, although it is little remembered today. This real-life murder became the centerpiece of my new book.
MB: Your road trip sounds fun. Did it shine any new light on what you already knew from your research?
Jonathan: Perish takes place in Alton, Illinois, a town of hills and ravines hard along the Mississippi River. When I went to Alton as part of researching the book, I discovered another unexpected piece of Lincoln history: the actual two-story brick building, perched on a hillside overlooking the river, in which Lincoln tried cases when he came to Alton.
In Lincoln’s time it was the shipping office of a Captain Ryder, who loaned his building to the judge whenever the circuit came to town. Today it’s a popular lunch spot called “My Just Desserts”. Ann, the owner of the restaurant, sat down at my table amidst the lunch rush and told me all about the history of the place. She couldn’t have been nicer. I recommend the All-Star Sandwich. And a slice of Peanut Butter Pie if you saved room for dessert.
MB: That peanut butter pie makes me want to take a road trip to Illinois. It was great having you here, Jonathan. Do you have a closing argument you’d like to make to our readers?
Jonathan: In Perish, Lincoln and Speed team up to try to crack the real-life case. I hope you’ll give it a read.
MB: Perish from the Earth is available at most bookstores and, of course, Amazon and every online bookseller.