'Unholy City': Detroit native writes third mystery featuring Detective Claire Codella

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Novelist Carrie Smith listens to what her characters tell her to do.

“When I write books, I follow the characters. They act in certain ways, and there are consequences. In many ways, I’m like my readers. I have to figure out what these characters are up to so I can finish the book,” Smith explained about her latest novel “Unholy City: A Claire Codella Mystery” (Crooked Lane $25.99).

 “Unholy City” marks Smith’s third novel featuring Codella, a detective for the New York City Police Dept. In “Silent City” – Smith’s debut novel – Codella returns to the job after battling cancer. In “Forgotten City,” Smith revealed more of Codella’s traumatic past. Codella also enters into a romantic relationship with her fellow detective, Brian Haggerty.

“She’s been stripped down by cancer. She’s looked back at the terrible childhood she had and made her peace with it. And she’s finally allowed someone else to get close to her,” said Smith, who quickly added: “Of course, that’s not to say she won’t have future challenges… In this third book, I wanted readers to see Codella back to full strength, free from her past demons, taking on the most complex case of her career.”

“Unholy City” opens with the bloody body of churchwarden Philip Graves lying in the herb garden of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side just two days before Good Friday. At first, his murder seems to be a random act of big city violence. However, Codella soon realizes Graves’ death was the result of a meticulously calculated ploy perpetrated by someone he knew.

Five vestry members, the church choir director, and 10 homeless men asleep in the church basement were in the vicinity during the time of the murder. Any one of them could have done it. Working with Haggerty, Codella must find out what Graves did to deserve such a brutal death, while trying to salvage her relationship with Haggerty along the way.

“The church community in ‘Unholy City’ is no more homogeneous than any other microcosm within this vast city. I’m writing about a diverse group of people attracted to one little Upper West Side church for a wide range of reasons that go beyond religious beliefs and traditions,” explained Smith. “In ‘Unholy City,’ St. Paul’s is a neighborhood institution with a long legacy of community service and social justice.
But forces are chipping away at the church’s ability to sustain its identity, and this historical legacy becomes an important element in the plot.”

A Detroit native and University of Michigan alumna, Smith channeled Agatha Christie, godmother of the mystery genre, when writing this novel.

“In fact, there’s a reference to a particular Agatha Christie novel in a conversation between Codella and one of the suspects early in the book. It’s actually a little clue—but I’m not going to say anymore,” said Smith. “‘Unholy City’ is a bit different from ‘Silent City’ and ‘Forgotten City.’ It’s a locked room mystery. All of the suspects are contained in one location at the time of the murder. Codella enters the scene and must dig into the events of the night and into their personal lives to figure out who the killer is. Each suspect had to have a very different and convincing motivation – something they were willing to protect at all costs.”

According to Smith, St. Paul’s is a fictional church that was inspired by an actual Upper West Side church in Manhattan called St. Michael’s, which has existed on the same site for more than 200 years. It was founded in 1807, when the Upper West Side of Manhattan was part of the rural Bloomingdale District where wealthy New Yorkers who lived in the city had summer estates overlooking the Hudson River. Pew holders at Trinity Church on Wall Street built St. Michael’s as a place to worship during the summer. The congregation also had an interesting connection to Seneca Village, the small community of free African-Americans that existed during the mid-1800s in part of what is now Central Park. The parishioners of St. Michael’s helped the Seneca Village residents build their first church.

“Well, of course all of the Codella novels take place in New York City, and I love to ground these fictional stories into an authentic backdrop,” said Smith. “My ideas develop gradually. First, I settled on the setting of this neighborhood Episcopal church. I visualized the victim and the manner of death. Then I began to think about all the characters who could populate that church and be suspects. And once those characters started to live in my head, they kind of told me what was going to happen.”

 

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