If you’re a book lover drawn to stories with suspense, strong female lead characters and a very realistic portrayal of Savannah life, then you’re going to want to start reading the new “Harper McClain” series by Christi Daugherty.
Daugherty is a former crime reporter who started her career at the Savannah Morning News and covered her first murder at age 22. She would later go on to work as a journalist in other cities, like Baton Rouge, La., and New Orleans, before going across the pond to work in England where she wrote the international bestselling young adult “Night School” series under the name CJ Daugherty.
The first book in her new adult series, “The Echo Killing,” is set in Savannah and follows the story of a crime reporter haunted by her mother’s murder that took place when she was a young girl. Fifteen years later, she discovers similarities between her mother’s murder and a new case.
Daugherty’s next book in the series, “A Beautiful Corpse,” will debut March 12 and the author reveals she will be doing quite a bit of research for the third book while she’s in town for the Savannah Book Festival.
She will give her presentation at 9 a.m. Feb. 16 at the Baptist Church Fellowship Hall.
Before making her way back to Savannah, Daugherty spoke with Do Savannah about “The Echo Killing,” why she’s still drawn to Savannah, and her special connection to the newsroom culture despite the dangers aimed at journalists.
Do: “The Echo Killing” is set in Savannah and the main character is a crime reporter at the newspaper that seems to be modeled after the Savannah Morning News at their old location on Bay Street. Tell us about your history with Savannah as a crime reporter and why you chose this location for your book?
Daugherty: “I based the newspaper in the book on the Savannah Morning News, where I was a crime reporter years ago. I knew that the paper had moved its offices from the original Bay Street location. I made a conscious decision to bring back that rambling, old news building for the book. I always liked that building. And, keeping it on Bay Street sets the action right in the heart of the city.
“The Morning News was my first professional journalism job. I was 21 years old and straight out of college. My first assignment as a crime reporter was watching the police pull a dead body out of the river. I interviewed a detective standing next to the corpse. And that was just day one.
“It was a wild journey. Over the years I watched gun battles, dodged snipers, avoided puddles of blood. And from time to time I thought, ‘Someday, I'll write a book about this.' It took a while, but ‘The Echo Killing’ is that book.”
Do: When you were writing this book, what elements of Savannah did you feel were important to add to the story?
Daugherty: “I wanted to capture the city as a character but not a caricature. Often, when people write about Savannah, it's all bulldogs in sweaters and quirky old men. I didn't want that.
“I wanted to capture the essence of workday Savannah. The one that residents see. Harper has lived there all her life, so she avoids the tourist spots; they slow her down. She's not interested in the quirkiness. I wanted people to see the beauty of it and also the crime that has always plagued the city.
“I can viscerally remember a night where there was a symphony in Forsyth Park. All my friends were going, but I was working. It was a beautiful summer evening, and I sneaked away from the newsroom to go to the park for a while. Everyone had picnics and champagne, and the music soared through the darkness. And then there was a shooting 15 blocks away and I was back to reality.
“In ‘The Echo Killing,’ I wanted to capture that balance of beauty and violence, because that was my Savannah. I spent far more time on its bad streets than in the tourist zone. And I, like my main character, came to feel more comfortable in the darkness than the light.”
Do: You live in England now? Did you keep up with Savannah crime news for this book? How did you do your research and what resource materials did you find helpful?
Daugherty: “One of the reasons I chose Savannah as the setting was because I'd started reading the Savannah Morning News online. Seeing those familiar street names brought it all back.
“I found an online police scanner that allows me to listen to the Savannah P.D. I often have it on when I'm working to help set the mood. That way, I can hear what my character Harper hears. It puts me in her world.”
Do: Several reviews of “The Echo Killing” describe the book as a great representation of newsroom culture. What elements do you find most important to describe newsroom culture? Do you miss the newsroom? If so, what do you miss?
Daugherty: “From the very start, I loved the noise and energy of a newsroom. In the days before everyone had headphones on all the time, you had to learn to write while three reporters were talking on phones and 10 more were all typing at once and the city editor was arguing with the copy desk. I think that's why, even now, I can write anyplace, no matter how loud it is.
“Writing 'Harper McClain,' I get to try and recapture the adrenaline rush of being a crime reporter, of hearing police called to a shooting on my scanner and that brief pause, holding my breath, waiting to see if it's serious. And if it is, running across the newsroom, down to the car and racing to the crime scene. I've never felt anything like that rush of excitement.
“I've also tried to capture the threat under which newspapers operate. That threat was present when I was a reporter and it's worse now. A subplot of the series is about the newspaper's struggle to survive. Harper's job is constantly in doubt; at any moment she could be let go.
“All of this is normal to journalists. By the time I was 25, I'd already been laid off twice. It's a tough way to make a living, and I try to represent it realistically.”
Do: “A Beautiful Corpse” is set to release in March—what can you tell our readers about that book?
Daugherty: “‘A Beautiful Corpse’ starts with a murder on River Street, at the heart of the tourism district. The dead woman is a law student and bartender. The three suspects are all men who say they loved her. Harper has to unravel a web of lies and obsession to find the truth, and her investigation could bring danger right to her door.”
Do: Any places you’re looking forward to visiting when you make your way to Savannah for the book festival?
Daugherty: “I’m bringing my husband who's never been to Savannah. So, I'm going to take him everywhere! We'll stop by all my old haunts in the historic district. Also, book three in the series is partially set on Tybee Island, so we'll be heading out there.
“For a variety of reasons, I'm looking for a new home for Harper and I have some ideas of where I want to put her, so I need to check those out.”