William Grigg is the author of the new novel A Perfectly Natural Murder. He spent many years as a journalist, a government spokesman, and a congressional aide. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for A Perfectly Natural Murder, and how long did you work on the book?
A: The idea for the book’s poisonings and the media frenzy that follows both evolved from my experience with the 1982 Tylenol poisonings when I was first with the Food and Drug Administration.
In that case, there was more than a year of intensive news stories, as there were lots of false ideas for how the poison got in the medicine, ranging from factor sabotage to messing in family medicine cabinets.
It took a good while to conclude that the victims were not all related and that someone had simply opened Tylenol capsules, added poison, slipped the capsule ends back together, and put the poison capsules back in the Tylenol bottles. The perpetrator then put the bottles back on the store shelves. The bottles were then purchased at random.
Until that was concluded, there were many speculations in the media and the public was in panic and virtually stopped taking OTC medications of any brand or type.
The first of those seven Chicago-area poisonings came to light in the fall of 1982 when, wet behind the ears, I had just started work as news director at the Food and Drug Administration. Chicago Trib science writer Bill Hines called and said there had been these deaths and what did FDA know about them and what was it doing about them?
I had just arrived and didn’t know a thing, and both the director and the deputy director of FDA were away, so I had to find out everything I could very fast and get it out quickly and often.
I issued daily fact sheets and did print and TV and radio interviews for many months as tamperings continued, and the whole country got so scared they quit taking any over-the-counter drugs. The tamperer was never discovered but FDA mandated tamper-proof drug packaging.
By that time I had got used to appearing almost daily on the radio and TV and 2 a.m. calls from the AP in Chicago “just to check before our last deadline.” The phone was on [my wife] Martha’s side of the bed and she got used to handing it to me and immediately falling back to sleep.
Why we never thought to switch sides of the bed, I’ll never know, but maybe Martha — who had been a copy girl and reporter at the old Washington Star, maybe enjoyed this re-connection!
And the idea of an insurance company setting for the murder came from her. She was by then GEICO's director of internal media — the prize-winning employee magazine and instructional booklets, etc., at GEICO, which you may recall, very nearly went bankrupt some years back.
Martha would tell me about some of the effective and not-so-effective employees and bosses. So GEICO and its staff became, in the book, Athena insurance, a mail-order company focusing on women, because they have fewer accidents and live longer and thus were likely to produce higher profits.
Q: How did you choose the format for the novel, which includes sections told by three main characters?
A: We liked the old British mysteries, not so much as Agatha Christie wrote them but as they appeared when excellent actors and actresses brought life to them. I especially yearned for Miss Marple or Poirot to “have a life,” with jobs and problems and passionate relationships.
So Martha wrote a modern Gothic called The Bethnel Inheritance. And I made my two heroes a driven woman lawyer and a raunchy veteran of Afghanistan who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.
These two characters narrated part of the story, which enabled me to have them speak differently, see the clues differently, and help each other as they slowly fall in love. Each speaks, I hope, with his or her own idea of who might be doing what to whom and how.
Then, in a kind of fantasy role, I added the words of the poisoned dead woman as she kiibitzes the others’ efforts to solve what happened. She is meant by turns to be angry, unbelieving, impatient, and humorous.
Although dead and thus beyond such things herself, she enjoys observing and gossiping about the pot smoking and fornications of her very-much-alive colleagues.
My method of story-telling pushed the envelope in the mystery genre, some say, but I was just aiming for an enjoyable read, and am very pleased that many readers in their reviews on Amazon call the book intriguing, original and, best of all, “A fun read."
Q: The novel takes place in the D.C. area. How important is setting to you in your fiction writing?
A: The book required a lot of research as to poisons and insurance, so it was a pleasure to use a locale in my own neighborhood that I was familiar with and that I could be sure about, as to the details.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am editing what I think will be a very commercial and thrilling romance novel my wife wrote but didn’t have time to publish before she died. It’s very exciting, with the heroine trying to escape on a sailboat she’s never sailed alone in a raging thunderstorm.
I’ve also completed a kind of coming-of-age adventure about a 14-year-old who runs away from home and military school (during the Vietnam War) and has both a terrifying capture by a Manson-like gang and eventual triumph as a young sailor. It is called My Ishmael — a reference to the young sailor in Melville's Moby Dick.
I also have some ideas about additional mysteries for the ex-Marine and lady lawyer team of my current mystery.
Luckily I’m from a long-lived family that includes a centenarian or two, so maybe I’ll get all this done!
I’ve already run through a number of careers -- science syndicate editor, medical and space reporter for three publications, chief of staff for three liberal Republican congressmen (back when there were such animals), news director or communications director for FDA, NIH, NIEHS, the Public Health Service, and the National Toxicology Program!
You would never know my wife, a Navy Junior who bounced around to nine schools as her father was re-assigned, said she married me in part because she thought I’d stay in one job and location!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb