The Bookshelf: Henniker Author Dives Into The Mind Of A Maybe-Killer

Apr 12, 2019

Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

Marian Engström always had a few nagging suspicions about her boyfriend Tate. Before he died suddenly, she wondered about that faraway empty look in Tate's eyes, and was puzzled by a profound lack of empathy he sometimes displayed.

And then there was the time he said he found the body of a young woman who had been murdered. Did he really just find that young woman? Or was he somehow responsible for her death?

Diane Les Becquets' new novel, The Last Woman in the Forest, is the story of Marian's investigation into Tate, with the help of a profiler who looks into the personal histories and patterns of serial killers.

Les Becquets lives in Henniker, N.H., and she spoke with Peter Biello on The Bookshelf about her new novel.  

At the heart of this novel is the idea of trusting your instincts. Particularly, women trusting their instincts when it comes to men, and staying safe around men, especially men you don't know. Why was this subject -- trusting one's instincts -- so important to you?

It was important to me for two reasons. One, I had learned about the Connecticut River Valley murders and the women who'd been killed. And as I read about their situations, I couldn't help but wonder if the killer, who was never apprehended, had preyed upon them in a way that gained their trust. The other thing was really deeply personal for me. When I was 18 a man whom I had looked up to, who was a mentor figure, who is much older than me, he had locked me in a filthy trailer and at knife point had assaulted me for 12 hours. There was a pivotal moment that evening where, had I trusted my intuition, things would have played out differently. But I remember that moment specifically thinking, ‘I'm crazy. I mean, I know this guy. Nothing's wrong. What am I thinking?' I just can't help but wonder how many other victims have been out there, and particularly those who were not as fortunate as I was, who maybe could have faced that same pivotal moment. 

And can you tell us about the Connecticut River Valley murders you just mentioned?

When I moved out here from northwestern Colorado, I began dating a forester and he told me about the Connecticut River Valley murders. He said, 'You being from Colorado are probably not familiar with them. They made national news.' It was when about six women were murdered along the corridor of Vermont and New Hampshire during the 1980s, and the killer was never apprehended. That really haunted me.

In your previous novel you said that you were most closely identifying with Pru among your characters in Breaking Wild. To what extent are you identifying with Marian in this novel?

There's certainly an emotional story that I'm identifying with in that she is young and naive, she's naive for a 26 year old, and I think I was much the same way. I was someone who just wanted to go play outdoors and trust everybody, and I had a real tender spot for meeting people and trusting them and also for the wilderness and for animals. That part of her I really identified with. But in order to write this fresh, and to keep it an original point of view, I ended up creating her to be someone who's very scientific. So she's looking for evidence. She's not one who's going to be emotionally in tune, trusting her intuition in certain situations. I based her little bit on a future daughter-in-law who is a science major. She's actually at Wake Forest studying biomedical research.

One of the elements of this novel that I found really fascinating was the character of Nick who is a criminal profiler and that's an actual job. Can you talk a little bit about what criminal profilers do?

It was something I wasn't familiar with at all before writing this novel. I reached out to criminal psychologist, profiler John Philpin who's retired now. He lives in Vermont and he's also an author. He really trusts his intuition, and in many ways, by looking at the evidence, looking at the facts, recreating crime scenes, he tries to inhabit the mind of the killer, but also the minds and lives of the victims, so that he can really reimagine the scenes. It's informed intuition but you know so much of that really is going quiet and being deep, and really being thoughtful about the whole process.

This is not necessarily a whodunit, though there is some element of that. Do you know the ending of the book when you start it, or does that sort of evolve as you work your way through the narrative?

I did know the ending of this book when I began it. However, shortly into the beginning of it and having conversations with my editor, I did know the ending. However, I started to second guess that as the novel progressed because I became interested in so many other facets of it. And then she and I sort of reconvened and discussed the ending again, and I discussed it with John because one thing he said is you want this book to be realistic. That was really important to me too. There're people who write psychological thrillers, and they write them for the point of entertainment. And I really wasn't doing that. I mean I was writing this as a realistic inside look at what might happen in these situations, and what might be going on with the victims, and trying to understand the course of their lives and their interior geography. Because of that, I think that really guided the direction that the book would take.

As far as the market goes, you seem to be really carving out a niche as writing about strong female characters who are in the woods. Can you talk a little bit about that setting -- the woods --  and what it adds to your stories.

Yeah, I think I'm really drawn to human trauma from a writer's standpoint. I'm really drawn to the feeling of being lost. You know this feeling I want to say to God, 'God I'm lost, please find me.' I've struggled with that a lot.  When I get into the wilderness, I think it's a way to strip away digital media, strip away cell phones, to really get back to the raw basics of who we are and our raw emotions. But I also think it's metaphorical for our interior lives, and just that sense of awareness when you're feeling lost or you're in a wilderness setting, everything is alive you know all your senses are so alive. And what a wonderful way to write in looking at a character in that environment.