They Said It Was a Tragedy. They Said It Was an Accident. They Lied.
Second Chance is a Philadelphia alternative school designed for at-risk students. They live on campus, they take classes, and everyone hopes they’ll stay out of prison. And then one of them dies. When Curtis Templeton falls from a piece of scaffolding near the school, it’s called a tragic accident. A damned shame. A terrible loss. And everyone moves on.
Two years later, former police detective-turned-professor Joel Williams and two of his colleagues do a study of Second Chance for a research paper. When they find out about Curtis’ death, they start asking questions. And no-one wants to answer them.
The search for the truth takes Williams and his research partners behind the scenes of for-profit alternative education – and straight into the path of someone who thought everything would stay buried.
In the meantime, changes are coming to Tilton University. The School of Social Sciences is going to be the new home of a center for research on juvenile offenders. But not everyone is happy about it. YouthPromises, the company that’s underwriting the center, is a for-profit alternative program that has a stake in the outcome of any research the center does. What will that mean for the faculty? Williams finds himself caught in the controversy over the center, just as he’s finding out the truth about Second Chance
*Is it easier writing about protagonist Joel Williams as the series progresses?
It actually is. As the years have gone by, I’ve gotten to know him better, if I can put it like that. So, it’s easier to see him as a complete person.
*How did you develop the plot for Downfall?
When I write my crime fiction, I always start with the victim. So, in this case, I began with fifteen-year- old Curtis Templeton. Once I imagined what he might be like, I thought about the sort of school/program he’d attend, and about his background. That gave me the context. And that led to the people in his life, and to the reason he’s killed.
*What are alternative schools like Second Chance?
Alternative schools are intended for students who can’t benefit from ‘regular’ public schools or private schools (like religious schools). For example, students who are pregnant or who are raising young children might need a school program that allows them to parent as well as attend classes. Students who have certain medical problems may also need an alternative program that allows them to meet their medical needs. And students with certain behavioral problems (this is where Curtis Templeton fits in) may benefit more from an alternative program with closer supervision and a different learning environment.
*What does ‘at risk’ kids mean and how do they qualify as such?
The thing about the term ‘at risk’ is that its definition varies depending on (for the US) the state and sometimes the school district. In a very general sense, an at-risk student is a student who is in danger of either failing out of school or of being expelled. Both situations make a student far more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, so the idea of the ‘at risk’ label is to help these students before they end up in prison. It doesn’t always work, sadly, but that’s the idea. A student who’s got several suspensions from school might be considered ‘at-risk.’ So might a student who struggles academically. For instance, students who are a certain number of grade levels behind their peers in reading might be considered ‘at-risk,’ depending on other factors in their lives.
*What were the most challenging aspects about writing this book?
The thing about writing crime novels is that, in most of them, people die. That’s a devastating loss for friends, loved ones, and co-workers who grieve for them. To portray that grief in what I hope is an authentic way isn’t easy. Everyone grieves differently, and there’s nothing to say that one way of coping with loss is ‘better,’ or ‘more normal’ than another way. So, one challenge is allowing for different people to express grief
differently. Another challenge is to do so without either getting melodramatic, or not doing justice to the real-life suffering of those who lose people.
*What are the most rewarding?
One of the best parts about writing this novel was seeing the characters come to life, so to speak, and letting them tell their stories. When the characters start to seem real (or close to it), the story gets more interesting. And that makes it more of a pleasure to write.
I also richly enjoyed exploring Philadelphia as I wrote. It’s a large city with a lot to it, so even though I consider Philadelphia my home town, there’s still a lot I don’t know about it. It was rewarding to learn a few things. And I did enjoy the chance to immerse myself in the city. I often get homesick, and writing the book was a good tonic.
*Who are the members of Joel’s research team?
The other members of the research team are Dr. Jered Carr and Dr. Ben Peterson. Carr’s a former parole officer who’s gone into academia. He’s got experience working with juvenile offenders and their families, so his skills will help in getting a broad picture of Second Chance. Peterson has a background in data analysis and an interest in computer crime, so his research skills are invaluable. He’s also got a brother in prison, so he has a personal interest in whether for-profit programs are helpful.
*Tell us about the changes coming to Tilton University and the Social Sciences department.
Any academic can tell you that when a foundation or corporation is willing to invest several million, a university sits up and pays attention. In this case, a for-profit company called YouthPromises is planning to donate three million (US) dollars to Tilton to fund a center for research into juvenile offenders. On the one hand, this is very good news for the School of Social Sciences. Members of the Departments of Psychology, Sociology, and Criminal Justice (that’s Joel Williams’ department) will have all sorts of opportunities. Trust me, universities everywhere love it when they get funding for research. Among other things, it means that faculty can pursue their interests, and that students interested the field can get the support and facilities they need.
On the other hand, YouthPromises is a for-profit company. What might this mean for the sort of research that goes on at the new center? Some people are afraid that there might be an undue amount of pressure on the faculty to research certain topics, and to support certain findings. And what might that mean for academic freedom and integrity of research findings? It’s not an easy set of questions.
*Tell us about Youthpromises and the role it plays in the book.
YouthPromises is a company that owns several alternative programs. This company has just agreed to donate three million (US) dollars to fund a research center at Tilton. And that means both lots of opportunities, and some very difficult controversial questions.
While YouthPromises employees and facilities don’t appear in the book, the fact that it wants to fund a research center means that the School of Social Sciences will be paying a lot more attention to alternative programs for young people who are at risk of ending up in prison.
*Tell us some fun facts you discovered that aren’t in the book.
That’s what I love about researching for a book. I always learn a lot. One thing I learned is the sometimes-complicated picture of which police authority has jurisdiction in certain places. In US National Parks, it’s the National Park Service, which is a federal authority. Park rangers may be assisted by local police in nearby towns or townships, or by state police, depending on the situation. And it works better for everyone if these different groups share information and cooperate. But, when a murder occurs in a US National Park, as one does in Downfall, the US National Park Service steps in. Thanks, by the way, to Valley Forge National Park for helping me with this part of the novel.
I also learned some interesting things about different sorts of row homes. For those of you not familiar with row homes, they’re a very common sort of architecture in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and some other cities. They tend to be longer than they are wide, and you may see several blocks of connected row homes. Here is a link to an interesting article from Philadelphia Magazine about Philadelphia row homes. There are
some helpful photographs, for those who haven’t seen this style of home before.
Thanks again, Benjamin, for hosting me!
Margot Kinberg is a mystery author and Associate Professor. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, Kinberg graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, then moved to Philadelphia, which Kinberg still considers home.
Kinberg had always been fascinated by crime fiction and mystery novels. In fact, she became an “addict” while still in her teens. So in 2007, she began her fiction writing career with her debut novel, Publish or Perish. In that novel, Kinberg put her experience in the world of higher education to use in creating a murder mystery that takes place at fictional Tilton University. This story introduces Joel Williams, a former police detective-turned-professor, who teaches in Tilton University’s Department of Criminal Justice. In this first outing, Williams helps solve the murder of a graduate student. The second in Kinberg’s Joel Williams series is B-Very Flat, in which Williams helps to solve the murder of a young violin virtuosa who dies suddenly on the night of an important musical competition
Kinberg, who now lives with her family in Southern California, is currently at work on her third Joel Williams novel.