What Hides Beneath: Rachel Howzell Hall on the Nature of Secrets

Read Rachel Howzell Hall’s thoughts on the nature of secrets and what inspired her new novel And Now She’s Gone, coming September 22nd, 2020!

By Rachel Howzell Hall

Los Angeles is a city of sea, stars and sky. The Pacific Ocean glints off the shore over there. What’s-Her-Face from That Show passes you and races up the 405 freeway in her Dodgers Blue Maserati (oh, you thought I meant constellations). And the sky, occasionally interrupted by skyscrapers, helicopters and airplanes becomes IG-worthy around four-forty every afternoon. That sky… As Grayson Sykes, new private investigator and heroine of AND NOW SHE’S GONE (coming 9.22.2020) says, from dirty blue to rose quartz to Necco wafer orange.

Los Angeles is also a city of secrets. Who killed and dismembered the Black Dahlia? Where are those secret Prohibition tunnels that were used to run booze? Is that ranch up there in the canyon really an abandoned Nazi compound? All the freeways and overpasses and 515 miles of freeway means there are tunnels and overpasses and dark corners, connected but not. A little over 503 square miles, Los Angeles is a land of houses and office parks, ghosts of auto- and aviation manufacturing plants, tattered structures still left tattered from the 1992 uprisings. Each edifice, each seemingly empty space crammed with secrets, but yet, never meeting its capacity.

How did I get here, writing crime stories about secrets and Los Angeles?

As a child, I learned to identify few sounds earlier than kids born in the suburbs or rural areas. Yes: the chirp of sparrows and caws of crows, the screeches of cats and the howls of dogs, the hover and thump of police helicopters and the urgent cries of sirens—from the quick whirs of a cop car to the longer screams of fire trucks and ambulances. Then, there were the kak-kak-kak of gunfire, the sudden screech of tire rubber and the thumps of sneakers slapping against the asphalt. The shouts of angry men and the cries of frustrated women. Maybe those sounds led me here. Maybe my fear and fascination of the action bubbling beneath those sounds—that, too. Not understanding the point of it all. The fearlessness and fearfulness that lead all of us to hurt each other. The ‘why’ and ‘was it worth it’. The need for answers so that I could sleep in the silence like those kids in places that I read about and never looked like me…

Even as a little one, I never believed good always triumphed over evil, that truth and lies could not coexist in the same space. I believed that you were punished for your sins and you were punished for not sinning, too. No one was going to save you except you—I believed that, too. I romanticized everyone else’s life—their homes were quiet, clean and led by parents who never raised their voices. Their homes boasted cabinets bursting with name-brand foods all the time, not just on Payday Fridays. Every girl not me could afford Guess? jeans, had a boyfriend and they all attended fabulous parties that I had not been invited to.

And as I grew, I came to understand that nearly everyone I counted as friends had jacked up home lives—mean-ass dads, alcoholic moms, violent brothers, aunties that stole, cousins in jail, bankruptcies, religious fanaticism, molestation…

I came to see that my dysfunctional family played more board games together, ate dinner together and danced together. That even though my parents argued, my siblings and I were loved and that my mother locking my sister and me in the bathroom and making us hold hands until we made up because, as she said, ‘You can be mad at me for making you do this but I don’t ever want you mad at each other’ was one of her best lessons in life. That my dad’s hardcore chef tendencies leading him to cook foil-wrapped filet mignon and mushrooms on a hotel iron during one of our few family trips would result in one of the best meals I’ve ever had. (Cheaper to buy the meat from the grocer than to take six people out to a restaurant, dig?)

Economics and race may have kept us in that part of L.A., but it never stopped us from achieving. Our lives—black lives—mattered.

Nature and nurture—that’s why I what led me to writing crime. And I write about lives that go largely ignored except when they’re used as a plot point or reasons behind a characters’ negative visceral reaction.

That’s why I chose to set my new novel AND NOW SHE’S GONE in Los Angeles and in this genre.

A native of Los Angeles, I’ve only ever lived for four years away from this place, trading my big city skies and rush hour traffic and so-much-to-do vibe with UC Santa Cruz. After graduation, I slid right back to this city of secrets, adding to my existing bank of secrets. Like… what happened in that drug store. Like… what occurred on that solarium sixteen floors up…

From identity and true feelings, to domestic violence and murder, AND NOW SHE’S GONE bulges with the secrets we all keep. Like… Aunt Jen had an affair with a priest. Like… Daddy has a secret family. Like…  He hits her every night and sits beside her in a church pew every weekend.

Grayson Sykes came to Los Angeles with secrets of her own—but as a PI, it is her business to discover and sometimes reveal the secrets of others. In her first big case, she’s hired by physician Ian O’Donnell to find his missing girlfriend, Isabel Lincoln. Ian isn’t saying, but something’s happened in their relationship to cause Isabel to flee one last time—and this time, she’s taken the doctor’s beloved Labradoodle Kenny G with her. But Grayson senses that Isabel hasn’t gone far, and it is up to her to twist through this city of 4 million people to find one woman who has some of the worst secrets to keep.

What’s happened in your world when one of your secrets were revealed? And what led you to loving crime stories?

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