My mother-in-law enjoys quilting, prosecco, chocolates, family photographs, geraniums, skim milk, and the new children’s wing at the public library. She is a kind woman, and—as long as you don’t curse—an eminently forgiving person, with a bent toward digital ineptitude that is at once exasperating and endearing.
“Okay, I clicked on it,” she says to me over the phone. “Now it disappeared.”
“It shouldn’t disappear,” I say. “Nothing just disappears.”
“Well, it disappeared.”
When the whole family goes to the beach, she packs a sun hat and snacks and tells us about her childhood catching crabs at the shore with only a piece of chicken and a string. At some point, as the conversation trails off, she reaches into her beach bag (purple, she sewed it herself) and gets out a book, and for the next hour she doesn’t say a word. Such an innately garrulous woman, what is it that has so engrossed her? Naturally, she is reading about a murder.
My mother-in-law is quite an aficionado of murders. She’s traveled the winding canals of Venice with Commissario Guido Brunetti, in the novels of Donna Leon, as he investigated the drowning of an American serviceman; she’s followed along behind Louise Penny’s chief inspector, Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec, as he unraveled the mystery of the socialite CC de Poitiers’s fatal electrocution at a curling competition. At night, reclining in her easy chair by the living-room window, she takes out her hearing aid and falls so wholly into these stories—pages snapping crisply one after another, thumbnail chewed to a nubbin—that she forgets about the dog waiting by the door and the kettle whistling on the stove.
What my mother-in-law does not read, however—and this is a point of pride for her—is true crime. She will read about the decapitation by snowmobile of a fictional errant insurance salesman (through the transmogrification of literature, she becomes the main character, literally stumbling on the head of the late insurer), but if a murder has actually occurred, it somehow precludes her interest. For my mother-in-law, something distinguishes the real murder from the fake, something prevents her from reading the former yet allows her to consume the latter with immense enthusiasm. She loves the characters in murder mysteries, she’s told me, their foibles and their deadpan philosophizing, but when she reads true crime, there’s a sense that the events are being sensationalized for her consumption, and she simply feels uncomfortable. This discomfort has been very much on my mind lately, because over the past few years, as I’ve undergone that slow process of becoming a part of my wife’s family, I’ve also been writing one of those very books, a book about an actual murder.
I don’t have much natural interest in crime, whether true or invented. My proclivities run more toward the mundane joys of domesticity. I enjoy leafing through cookbooks and pulling the Dutch oven down from the shelf, and I share with my mother-in-law a passionate interest in the garden. In the fall, I look forward to the arrival of the various Dutch bulb catalogues; and in the spring, when she tells me, sighing over the phone, that the deer have again eaten the leaves off all her Armenian hyacinths, I feel her pain, not only because I planted those bulbs for her but because I know how pretty they would have been. I have tried to learn to appreciate true-crime books, but without much success. I was only a paragraph into Capote before I’d had enough, and the hundreds of knockoffs were hardly better. I can’t even watch semiviolent movies. I made it an hour into The Talented Mr. Ripley before I had to stop, twenty minutes into Thelma and Louise—it’s not that they’re gruesome, it’s the stress. When I come across the story of a crime in the paper, I feel less excitement than nausea. I don’t want to know how many times the seventeen-year-old stabbed his grandfather, or that afterward he went to the mall and bought new sneakers.
And yet, it was from reading the paper that I learned about the disappearance of a woman named Sabine Musil-Buehler, a motel owner in Florida. One night, on a little island off the Gulf Coast, she simply vanished. There was no body, no murder weapon, and though the sheriff’s office named three men as persons of interest in the case, no one had much of a motive. It hadn’t ever been my intention to write a true-crime book, but I’d been staying at the woman’s motel not long before she went missing, and I’d been drawn back to the island by the peculiar hallucinations of her that the people who lived there were having. After the disappearance, they saw her everywhere: at the Circle K and the Salvation Army, at a bar with a man dressed like a pimp. She was at the orthodontist’s office; she was boarding a flight at the Sarasota International Airport; she had crossed over into the beyond and would be in touch soon by communicating telepathically through her pet parrot. I wanted to write something about these people, about the way we fill the space where a woman once lived with all our fears and expectations. It didn’t occur to me that this sort of project, going from person to person, interviewing them about a missing woman, almost exactly mirrored the work the detectives were doing. And neither did it occur to me that, like them, I was beginning to assemble a story of what had happened, or something like it.
This story wasn’t easy to research in either practical or emotional terms. Some people spoke with me out of concern for their missing friend, others because they liked to gossip and conjecture, others for reasons I could never quite understand. The woman’s husband decided early on that he wouldn’t speak about his wife, while her boyfriend was so communicative that I could hardly reply to one of his letters before another arrived. “Especially me and those closest to her are deeply troubled on her vanishing,” he wrote. “You’re not some kind of investigative reporter are you?” The hardest hours were those spent with Musil-Buehler’s brother, looking at photographs from her childhood, hard not simply because of his grief but because I could feel the way my own work prodded that pain into the open. We sat together at a table, flipping through photographs, the muscles in his jaw clenching and unclenching as he told me what I could see plainly for myself. This was Sabine at a birthday party, Sabine in a hailstorm, Sabine wearing a fur coat. When I asked him to describe not the photographs but his sister, who she was as a person, he seemed to struggle to find the appropriate phrasing. After a long pause, he finally brought up a few words. She was punctual, he said.
As time went on, it became increasingly clear that Sabine Musil-Buehler had been killed. As I spoke with the detectives and sifted through affidavits and drove out to the Manatee County Jail to conduct an interview, it gradually dawned on me that I was no longer writing a short essay about a disappearance but a book about a murder. The case had begun to consume my thoughts to a degree I wouldn’t have thought possible. Sabine Musil-Buehler appeared often in my dreams then, her corpse sitting beside me at an extravagant opera; or if I dreamed I was swimming, she took me by the ankle and dragged me down into the depths. In the drawer of my desk, I kept a folder of photographs that the detectives had taken of her apartment in the days after her disappearance—her closet, with its mess of dresses and shoes; a sand dollar atop a dresser; a long red sofa—and I returned to these images every so often, when I felt I’d lost a sense of what I was doing. I didn’t think I’d find the clue that would solve the crime in those photographs. Rather, when I surveyed those scenes of normal domestic life, I was trying to see in them some explanation of why the murder occurred at all.
As the investigation slowly moved forward, I developed a singular mental tic. From time to time, without ever really meaning to, I would think back to my own life on the night Sabine Musil-Buehler had disappeared. I kept a regular journal at the time, and I knew from my notebooks exactly what I’d been doing that evening. I was over a thousand miles north of the island, in a small city in Iowa, watching television with a few friends. I knew exactly who else was there and what was on TV. I even remembered the kind of beer we’d been drinking. Sometimes I imagined that I could go back in time, fly to Florida, and stop the murder. I saw myself arriving breathlessly at 208B Magnolia Avenue, banging on the door, waiting for it to open. More often, I simply tried to recollect that night in my own life, in all its details. Didn’t we all have too much to drink that night? Didn’t we all go out on the porch later without our coats even though it was November? Wasn’t the sky clear? Wasn’t I happy then?
Everything I was writing hinged upon that evening, but why was I returning to my own experience of it? The question needled me, and it wasn’t until the case was resolved, it wasn’t until they finally found out exactly what had happened to Sabine that I realized why. I think I returned to that night in my own life with such frequency because in writing about a murder, I felt the same sort of discomfort my mother-in-law feels in reading about one. Although I knew the detectives wouldn’t show up at my door, as they’d shown up at the doors of the missing woman’s husband and boyfriend, I thought back to that night because I was reminding myself, albeit unconsciously, that I had an alibi.
When the case unexpectedly came to a conclusion, unraveling of its own accord in the span of a single morning, I drove once more out to the Manatee County Jail, a route by then so familiar I hardly even noticed it. I barely noticed the oaks strung with moss, the gypsum stacks covered in yellow wildflowers, the railroad tracks leading off in a straight line toward Tampa. I was sitting in the visitation room, awaiting the arrival of the murderer before I knew how I’d gotten there. As the interview I was about to conduct took shape in mind, and the story I’d undertaken to write lay open before me, I felt a crescendo of discomfort. As Susan Sontag said, we can only draw so close to another’s suffering before we begin to feel responsible for it. You can do a lot of pretty philosophizing with yourself and still find, at the end of the day, that your work relies on the death of another human being.
If there is a simple answer to where one goes from that realization, how one works those dark and unsettling materials without a sense of complicity, I have not yet found it. I sat there with my notebook, my pen, and watched as the room filled with the other inmates’ visitors: some old, some young, some men but mostly women, a few dressed as if for church, others wearing nothing more than sweatshirts, sweatpants, and flip-flops. I wondered again what exactly I was doing in Florida, why I had continued to pursue this project, and I thought, as I often do when I’m away from home, of my wife, whose loveliness seems to increase in some mystical and disconcerting proportion to each mile that separates us. There were only a few minutes then before the man would arrive and I would have to begin asking him questions. I adjusted my collar and stared down at my notebook, where an ant had appeared and was making its circuitous journey across the page.
It has taken me years to realize what it means to describe someone you love, someone who has gone missing, someone you may never see again, as punctual. It has taken just as long to understand why a detective would come out of retirement because of a single missing-persons case, or why a man would end the life of a woman. Sometimes in writing and reading, we are offered these sorts of glimpses into the lives of others. We see ourselves reflected in the people on the page, we recognize in them something we’d been unable or unwilling to acknowledge in our own lives, and, if we are lucky, we’re allowed a clearer existence because of their struggles. I don’t know if it’s possible to read or write about the death of another human being without feeling you are somehow bound up in that death. But I think now, as I thought that day at the county jail, that this feeling of complicity might not be a bad thing at all. When you look across the table and begin to see yourself in the person sitting there, that’s where the story begins.
Cutter Wood is a writer living in Brooklyn. His first book of nonfiction, Love and Death in the Sunshine State, is out now from Algonquin Books.