Summer Guide 2011
Published: June 15, 2011
His books describe hunters fed to pigs, DNA collected in a roller rink and a woman's body parts transported on her children's sled, but perhaps the most unlikely plot line in Tom Henderson's world is his entrance into true crime writing.
In 1999, one of the book world's more prominent agents called him looking for someone to write the story of a suburban defense attorney who had had an affair with a judge and then was convicted of killing his wife. Yes, the agent Jane Dystel, who repped Barack Obama's first book, called Henderson after a former colleague of his recommended him for the task. The case was so attractive to the publisher, they had the agent seeking a writer.
"It's an unreplicable model," says Tom Henderson, banking reporter at Crain's Detroit Business by day, author of books about some of Michigan's most notorious crimes by night and weekend. "Twelve years ago, Jane called me saying she was calling on behalf of St. Martin's Paperbacks True Crime Library and asking if I wanted to do a book. The odds of a freelance writer getting called by a reputable agent for a mainstream publishing house? Those are worse odds than winning the lottery."
But Henderson had lucked out and continues his streak, albeit on others' misfortunes, which he's sensitive to.
He's authored five true crime books since that telephone call. First he wrote A Deadly Affair, the story Dystel requested, the story of Mick Fletcher, the death of his wife from what he argued was a self-inflected gunshot wound and his affair with then-Warren District Court Judge Susan Chrzanowski. Then Henderson wrote Blood Justice, about a serial killer from Flint who stalked and sliced up women.
His third and most popular book was Darker Than Night, the story of two Detroit-area deer hunters who disappeared in northern Michigan, and a Michigan State Police detective's reopening of the case 20 years later to solve it (turns out they were fed to pigs). The hero of the story is Robert "Bronco" Lesneski, a Michigan State Police lieutenant who was reassigned to the East Tawas post and inherited the then 18-year-old case file. An unassuming guy, Bronco couldn't let go of this unsolved crime, and in his spare time spent years earning the trust of the only witness to the crime, who finally testified against the perps.
The fourth in his library, Afraid of the Dark, was the story of Mark Unger, the Huntington Woods man convicted of killing his wife in northern Michigan.
Now, just in time for summer reading, Henderson brings readers Blood in the Snow, narrating the investigation and trial in the death of Macomb County's Tara Grant, who was murdered by her husband, Stephen. In what was a well-publicized 2007 case, Stephen Grant made tearful public pleas for her return — after having killed her, dismembered her and distributed some of her body parts by sled at Stony Creek Metro Park, all the while lusting after the couple's au pair.
It's the third book about the case but it's also the only one that had police cooperation.
And that makes all the difference. For those metro Detroiters who remember then-Sheriff Mark Hackel's numerous, choreographed news conferences, Henderson's book offers behind-the-scenes insights. He crafts a story of the Grants' marriage, their relations with family members and later, displays how those personalities manifested themselves during trial preparation.
In all, it's a wild ride of a read that's still compelling for local readers who remember only too well the chilling story.
Henderson spoke with Metro Times about his latest book and his true crime writing.
Metro Times: Do you have a favorite of the five books you've written?
Tom Henderson: I do: Darker Than Night. The evildoers were completely out of a Coen brothers movie. It was Fargo pre-dating Fargo. And there's a great cop in "Bronco" Lesneski. If I could make up people like that, I would be a novelist and make a lot more money. It's hard to say it's a fun book given the circumstances and families' lives being ruined, but it was kind of a fun book to do.
MT: Some of your books show clear guilt for the perpetrators and others are more questionable cases. Are those different in how you approach them?
TH: The ones I enjoy, if that's the right word, are the ones that are obviously seriously defective human beings who are doing bad things to other people and getting caught. Bad people, really seriously bad people, getting caught by good police work and getting put where they belong.
MT: How has the genre of true crime changed in the roughly 12 years you've been in it?
TH:The recession seemed to have hurt books sales a little bit and the whole getting away from print media. People don't seem to have attention spans any more. I think in general there are still big sellers in Tom Clancy and John Grisham and James Patterson. If you're down the food chain a little bit, I think what's happening is it's not that people aren't buying them as much it's that sellers of books aren't ordering them as much. I hope it's just a blip and it will come back.
MT: What are readers looking for in a true crime book?
TH: I used to read them before I started writing them. I think you're looking for a beach read or something to read on an airplane. They're looking for a sense of justice. True crime typically isn't done unless there is something that's really bad to make it book worthy. It also has to be solved. You want to know who the villain is and have an ending. You read it as if you're reading a novel, and you almost don't know how it's going to come out even if you do.
MT: What's the key to the research?
TH:If you can establish some relationship with the attorneys and the lead cop on the case. Getting the cops on board isn't always so easy, cops tend to not necessarily be enamored with reporters.
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