Excerpted from The Rosary Girls by Richard Montanari. Copyright © 2005 by Richard Montanari. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
An Interview with Richard Montanari
Author of THE ROSARY GIRLS
Question: THE ROSARY GIRLS is about a serial killer with a deep religious psychosis. What was your inspiration for the book?
Richard Montanari: I was raised Catholic at a time when Vatican II was just taking hold. A lot of the masses were still being offered in Latin and I think there was a mystery to the rites and sacraments that is missing now. I was thinking one day about how important mystery is to faith, and I wondered what something like the Sorrowful Mysteries might mean to an unstable mind, and who might be the innocent victims. The Agony in the Garden, the Scourge at the Pillar, the Crown of Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Crucifixion. These are powerful visual and emotional images.
Q: Have there been any actual cases like this?
RM: In doing my research, I did not run across a case exactly like the one in the book, but as you might imagine, I did find plenty of deranged behavior committed in the name of religion.
Q: What kind of research did you do for the book?
RM: I spent a lot of time in Philadelphia (the setting for THE ROSARY GIRLS). Philly is a city made up of many neighborhoods – more than a hundred, in fact – and the citizens can be very territorial. It is also a city in transition, a lot of building, a lot of change. It has some of the most breathtakingly beautiful areas, and some of the most devastated urban blight I have ever seen. Quite often these areas are right next to each other. I also spent a good deal of time with the Philadelphia Police Department. The homicide division is one of the best and busiest units in the country. Although my main characters Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are not based on any single individuals, they are composites of some of the dedicated detectives I met on the PPD. Believe me, although I really like the show, the reality of Philly Homicide is nothing like CBS’s Cold Case.
In addition, I spent a good deal of time at the forensic crime lab. The Crime Scene Unit of the PPD is nationally known and highly respected. They were very generous with their time and advice. Give these people a drop of evidence and they will track you down.
Q: You’ve written the killer in THE ROSARY GIRLS from the first person point of view. Why did you make this narrative choice, and was it difficult?
RM: I’ve never written an entire novel in first person. Although I think it is an effective tool in crime fiction – especially the private eye novel – I always felt it would be too confining for my style. I usually have three or four points of view in my work. In THE ROSARY GIRLS, I thought it would be interesting to unfold the killer’s pathology through his own thoughts, in present tense, as the book progressed. And because the story is a whodunit, the challenge for the reader would be to divine the identity externally, while being privy to the innermost thoughts of a sociopath. I admit it’s a difficult task, but I have great editors who keep me honest.
Q: Your protagonists are about as different as they can be. Jessica Balzano is a single mother of a three year old, new to the homicide unit. Kevin Byrne is a rather soul-damaged veteran. Where did they come from?
RM: It was always my intention to write a series, and as I did my research, I learned a great deal in a short period of time. When I was writing the book I thought, why not create a character who could take my hand and lead me through the anxiety-ridden first days and weeks and months on the job as a homicide detective? Granted, Jessica is an eight-year veteran of the force, but she is new to this tribe called Homicide, and as she feels her way though the territorial makeup of the squad, I did too. As to Kevin Byrne, I wanted to create a character who has seen it all many times, and still believes.
Q: THE ROSARY GIRLS walks on the dark side of human nature. Why do you write about this?
RM: I’ve always been fascinated by accounts of seemingly “normal” people who have committed horrendous acts of cruelty and violence. You hear it on the news all the time. “He seemed like a nice guy. Very helpful. He dug me out of the snow last winter.” Then you find out he has a dozen prostitutes buried in his back yard. I like writing about these people just before they go deep end. What is a serial killer like at the bank? The dry cleaners? In church? Who is the guy sitting next to you on the bus?
Q: The dialogue in the book is very authentic. How did you learn to write the way people actually speak? What were the challenges of getting the Philadelphia jargon down?
RM: This comes from years of writing magazine profiles. Over the years I have had to interview a lot of people, and, unfortunately, some of the time what they were talking about wasn’t very interesting. So, trusting my handy tape recorder to get the facts I needed, I would concentrate on the rhythms of their speech, their intonations, inflections and the emphasis they placed on words. As to Philly-speak, it was matter of getting into the rhythm and cadence of the city. Along with the regional characteristics. For instance, don’t call it a sub sandwich, it’s a hoagie. You don’t cut school, you bag school. Pop? Cola? Uh, no. It’s a soda.
Q: Why Philadelphia?
RM: The simple answer is, I love the city. I have family there, and as a kid growing up in Ohio, we used to visit Philly every summer on the way to Wildwood. I remember thinking: Two rivers. How cool is that?
Q: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?
RM: Jim Thompson, Charles Willeford, James Ellroy and Shirley Jackson come to mind. I’m equally influenced by filmmakers like David Lynch and David Cronenberg. Of the current crop of younger filmmakers I really like Darren Aronofsky and David Fincher. The first thing I notice in a book or a film is mood. Everything else follows.
Q: Speaking of mood, you’ve set a lot THE ROSARY GIRLS in the rain. Why?
RM: I spent a week in Philly last April, and it rained the entire time. On Easter Sunday I was in South Philly, watching the families heading to church in their bright new clothes. Lemon yellow dresses against the dirty red brick, all shrouded in mist. The contrast was very powerful. The antagonist in this book has a storm-ravaged soul. The decision made itself.
Q: How would you classify your work? Mystery? Thriller? Detective fiction?
RM: That’s a tough one. I’ve written five novels now, and they all primarily fall into the whodunit category, insofar as there is a character walking among the other characters who turns out to be the killer. That said, I would probably not call my books detective fiction, because that connotes the private eye genre. Nor would I put it strictly into the police procedural category, even though four of the five books follow a police officer investigating a crime. I’d like to call the book a thriller, but I think that’s for the reader to decide. The tag on THE ROSARY GIRLS is “A Novel of Suspense.” I think, and hope, that is accurate.
Q: There are 7000 officers in the Philadelphia Police department. How do you think they will react to THE ROSARY GIRLS?
RM: Since they are all heavily armed, I hope they like it. I spent a good deal of time with the Homicide Unit, and they were very generous with their time when it came to answering my many questions. As were the officers of the Crime Scene Unit, even though the book is not heavy on the science. A few detectives vetted the final manuscript for procedural details, and pronounced the book authentic. It is equally important to me that the citizens of Philadelphia find the book true to their city. I invented a few Catholic schools, for obvious reasons, but I worked very hard on keeping all the other locations and venues genuine. Philadelphia is my adopted hometown now. As a newcomer, I hope the city embraces the book.
Q: You’ve published four thrillers. What’s in the future?
RM: I’ve just completed The Skin Gods, the second book in the Philadelphia series. I’m planning to write at least one more book with these characters, then hopefully to write a standalone. I’m also polishing a pair of original screenplays. One is a supernatural thriller. The other is, believe it or not, a romantic comedy.
From the Hardcover edition.