When she was a newspaper reporter, Triune Mercy Center pastor Deb Richardson-Moore’s stories generated headlines. Now, the headlines are generating storylines in her mystery series.
“The Cover Story,” the second cozy mystery in Richardson-Moore’s Branigan Powers series, was inspired, in part, by news stories involving college campuses, including one where 18 Penn State students were charged in connection with the death of a fraternity pledge who died after falling down stairs at a fraternity house.
“It seemed like over and over, horrible things were happening on college campuses,” she said. “Some of the things that happen in the book, five years ago, I would have said, ‘That’s too unrealistic.’ Now, there’s nothing that’s too unrealistic. It seems to be happening all the time.”
In “The Cover Story,” a fatal crash involving two college students heading home for the holidays seems like an unfortunate accident. But when the surviving girl wakes up, she says a vehicle — an old-fashioned, 1950s-style hearse — ran them off the road. Powers is desperate to find out whether her niece is still in danger and teams up with Malachi Ezekiel Martin, a homeless man and one of the key characters in the first book, to track the hearse to a local university. There, she is led to dangerous fraternity and sorority pledge parties and must uncover what is really going on at the college before other students are put in danger.
Richardson-Moore, a lifelong mystery lover, said she hopes people will learn something about the homeless by reading the book. Before becoming pastor at Triune, an international nondenominational church that works with the homeless, Richardson-Moore said she didn’t recognize that some of the people she saw in her day-to-day life were homeless.
“You don’t know what you’re looking at unless you know what to look for,” she said. “They’re kind of invisible out in the open.”
Richardson-Moore put Malachi at the heart of her mysteries to show that the homeless are real people and to show “not only how he lives but how he thinks,” she said.
“Homelessness does not define a person’s character,” Richardson-Moore said. “There are good, bad, and in between. Having a house or not having a house does not show a person’s character.”
The old hearse came from Richardson-Moore’s childhood. When she was growing up, her family told ghost stories, especially when they were at the beach. They told stories about the Gray Man of Pawleys Island; Alice Flagg, an early 19th-century woman from an upper-crust family who fell in love with a man in a lower social class; and other ghosts from the Carolinas.
But the family’s favorite was a story from Richardson-Moore’s Aunt Margaret, a teacher in Sumter. According to the story, Margaret was returning home around dusk from Columbia, and a car began following her. She sped up, and it sped up. She dropped back to let it pass, and it edged up beside her. She saw it was an old hearse. It began inching toward her, threatening to force her off the road.
As she neared her house, Margaret realized no one was home. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to get out of the car and into the house before whoever it was could get in. She continued driving, the hearse on her tail, until she arrived at her in-laws’. The hearse followed her into the driveway but quickly turned around in the yard and sped off when Margaret’s headlights shone on the house.
“I told that story on every beach trip probably from the time I was 12 years old,” Richardson-Moore said. “It’s been trying to find its way into a book ever since.”
It has — in Richardson-Moore’s latest cover story. She is already working on the third book in the series.
Book Launch Party with Deb Richardson-Moore
What: “The Cover Story”
When: Thursday, July 13, 5:30–8 p.m.
Where: Fiction Addiction, 1175 Woods Crossing Road