Literary Insights: Love and Death in the Sunshine State

Not Your Average True Crime Story 

By Susanne Carter

In a Paris Review essay, Cutter Wood writes: “I don’t have much natural interest in crime, whether true or invented. My proclivities run more toward the mundane joys of domesticity… 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.”

I feel similarly.  I don’t read true crime books. I haven’t read a mystery since Nancy Drew in fifth grade. I shy away from the gory details of crime stories.  So what prompted Cutter Wood to write Love and Death in the Sunshine State? And why did I pick up the book and then couldn’t put it down?  In this guest blog post I review Wood’s cross-genre narrative.  In the Writers’ Notes, I discuss what makes it an exceptional debut.

Fact and Fiction

Cutter Wood was a graduate student at the University of Iowa when his mother sent him a newspaper clipping detailing the bizarre mystery of a stolen car, a missing person, and arson of a motel on tiny Anna Maria Island in Florida.  Wood had stayed at the small family-run motel on Anna Maria Island a few months before while visiting relatives. He had returned to Pennsylvania, never intending to see the sunshine state again.  But the story haunted him.  As he returned to Anna Maria Island and began to research the crime, Wood started to write what he believed would be an essay.  The “essay” turned into a ten-year project and a hard-to-classify narrative that blends the “documentary and literary.”

Wood’s investigation of the crime involves facts of the case garnered through endless files of police reports and personal interviews.  But the “whodunit” is not what drives the narrative.  What interests Wood more are the people—both victims and suspects—who were involved in the case. He delves into their backgrounds, personalities, and relationships, trying to comprehend how their interactions could take such a tragic turn.  He even visits and corresponds with the prime suspect while he is in prison on a parole violation.

Midway through the narrative, the evidence Wood has gathered and analyzed begins to dissipate. There is nothing conclusive to say.   At this point fact begins to give way to fiction. Wood begins to piece together what he has learned about the people involved in order to craft what he imagines might have happened the night of Sabine Musil-Buehler’s murder.   We read a disturbing yet fascinating story of what the author fantasizes could have taken place. We wonder, as Wood did for many sleepless nights, how love could take such a dark turn.

Self Reflection

At the same time that Wood is examining the relationships of the people involved in the case, he is also turning the mirror upon himself and examining the complex and often confusing nature of love.  In the midst of writing this book, Wood began a relationship with a woman who would eventually become his wife. He recognizes many of the issues they are dealing with in their relationship reflected in the people whose lives he is getting to know intimately.  He writes:

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.

The result of Wood’s ten years of effort is a blend of journalistic research, introspective memoir, and imagined fiction.

 Writers’ Notes

Love and Death in the Sunshine State exemplifies the fact that writers never know when or where an idea might originate.  Wood confesses that his writing notebook contained mainly scribbled observations of the behavior of sparrows and translations of carnal dreams when he began graduate school. But a newspaper clipping arrived that changed the course of his life for the next ten years. 

In addition to skillfully blending fact and fantasy, Wood’s strong characterizations and descriptions add to the quality of his writing.

Characterizations: Wood’s emphasis on character development instead of solving the crime gives this narrative depth beyond what you would typically find in a “true crime” book.  In his blended fact-and-fantasy descriptions, Wood humanizes both suspects and victims while illustrating that we are all more alike than we are different.  In an interview with Salon he explained:

I feel like it’s dangerous, as a person, that it’s dangerous to society, to ignore that murderers are also often people, and these things don’t just come out of nowhere. That was definitely a big thing that was on my conscience and my consciousness while I was working on this. I wanted to make sure that this is a story about human beings.

Descriptions:  Wood’s descriptions capture both the natural beauty and touristy tackiness of Florida (Anna Maria Island is described as “shaped like an elongated comma, a lump of sand and dirt in the north, trailing behind it a long drawn out tail”) as well as many of the eccentric characters the state attracts.  The imagined events that lead up to the murder are narrated from both the murderer’s and the victim’s perspectives in prose that is lyrical and believable.  Even the strangling of Sabine is described in slow-motion prose that speculates on the thoughts running through the mind of the victim as she fades away but struggles to survive:

As if to a throne, something is beginning to ascend within her now. A kind of wave runs up along the inside of her spine, grasps her by the inmost fiber and shakes, and she draws in a breath that seems to burst her eyes, and tries to reach down to tie her sneakers.  In an instant, she’s driven down against the floor by an impossible weight.  It presses her through the floor, and she is drawn away again. It is not like giving birth or being born.  At the last, it is more like being tipsy queasy and tipsy, and a good friend with a forlorn face has her by the elbow, is pulling her away with gentle reassurances and encouragements, from the lights and colors and songs of the party. (p. 192)

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