Monday Motivation: Ancient scandal, model scene
David Grann is an American investigative reporter who has over the years won a slew of awards for his work. I remember a piece I read in the New Yorker some years ago which has been described as the first thoroughly documented case of the execution of an innocent man under the modern American judicial system.
He’s about to publish his account of a murder case that took place in the early 1920s.
I’ve pre-ordered Killers of the Flower Moon: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI on my Kindle. Trouble is, it’ll only arrive on April 20. But what I do have is a scene from the book that Grann read out during the course of a BBC interview I happened to catch.
And it’s this scene that I want to dwell on today.
I’ll let Amazon set out the background of the story:
“In the 1920s,” runs their synopsis of the book, “the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, they rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions and sent their children to study in Europe.
“Then, one by one, the Osage began to be killed off. As the death toll climbed, the FBI took up the case. But the bureau badly bungled the investigation. In desperation, its young director, J. Edgar Hoover, turned to a former Texas Ranger named Tom White to unravel the mystery. Together with the Osage he and his undercover team began to expose one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.”
In his interview, Grann gave a little background to the scene he proposed to read.
Molly Burkhardt, a member of the Osage tribe, became a prime target of the conspiracy. The first hint of the existence of the conspiracy was the disappearance of her sister Anna. The scene picks up where a small party of squirrel hunters are working their way through the woods. Anna’s body has not yet been found.
“A man was squirrel hunting by Three Mile Creek near Fairfax with his teenage son and a friend. While the two men were getting a drink of water from a creek, the boy spotted a squirrel and pulled the trigger. There was a burst of heat and light and the boy watched as the squirrel was hit and began to tumble lifelessly over the edge of a ravine.
He chased after it, making his way down a steep wooded slope, and into a gulch where the air was thicker and he could hear the murmuring of the creek. He found the squirrel and picked it up. Then he screamed, “Oh, papa.”
By the time his father reached him the boy had crawled upon a rock. He gestured towards the mossy edge of the creek and said, “A dead person.”
There was the bloated and decomposed body of what appeared to be an American Indian woman. She was on her back with her hair twisted in the mud and her vacant eyes facing the sky. Worms were eating at the corpse.”
The little scene is just a few paragraphs in length, but it does everything a scene is meant to in order to bring the story to life through dramatic action. Look how it does this:
It begins by zooming in from the “wide shot” of the wilderness near a specific creek in a specific district, to a “close up” of the teenage member of the party. We hear the crack of his rifle, feel the heat and see the light of the gun discharging. We watch the squirrel tumble into a gorge. We follow the boy down the steep slope of the ravine. We share his sense of the stagnant air, hear the murmur of the creek.
And then note that Grann avoids the obvious. Instead, he registers the boy’s scream – that plangent “Oh, papa” – his retreat from the object of his fear, and the boy’s bare and economical explanation, the more powerful for its brevity: “A dead person.”
And finally we settle, like a crow, on the corpse: bloated, decomposed, worms eating at its flesh. And the convincing detail: the hair twisted in the mud, the vacant eyes staring sightlessly at the sky.
There are, of course, many well-written scenes. We come across them every day, and hardly remark on them. It must have been the fact that I was listening to this one that drew my attention to its brilliance. Just 139 words long, it’s a model of its kind.