Today, Kingwood, Texas, friend and fan Courtney Little posted the above photo on her Facebook page with the words, “Suzy, today I’m lunching with Celeste. Haha! I’m a little scared …” Celeste is the killer in my true crime book The Fortune Hunter. So, yes, if Courtney truly were having lunch with Celeste, she should be scared. Celeste is frightening, but she’s also very entertaining.
When I interviewed Celeste in prison, I didn’t want to leave because she was so much fun. I know that sounds weird – interviewing a killer in prison and having fun. But Celeste is funny. And only by sitting down with her and spending time with her did I understand how and why she could talk a friend into killing her husband for her … and afterwards convince other friends that she was completely innocent. In my opinion, Celeste wraps her lies in just enough truth – shocking, humorous confessions of truths that most people would want to keep hidden – that everything else she says, including her lies, feels honest.
Strangely enough, The Fortune Hunter is the only true crime book I ever really wanted to write. I fell into my first true crime book, Wasted. To a lesser degree, I fell into my second book, Wages of Sin. (I may explain that in a later post.) I only did the third book, Breaking Point, because I was asked to write it. But The Fortune Hunter was different. I’d wanted to write it ever since I first heard about the crime in 1999.
I wanted to write about it because the person who pulled the trigger was Tracey Tarlton, a manager at BookPeople, the largest independent bookstore in Texas. BookPeople had been very good to me in promoting Wasted. I don’t think Tracey remembers this, but I once contacted her and asked her to make sure another writer who was appearing at BookPeople got a copy of Wasted. Tracey promised me she’d get it to her, and I appreciated that.
But I also wanted to write about the case because Celeste and Tracey had met at a mental health facility and mental health issues have always fascinated me. (I would have been a psychology major if a rat lab hadn’t been a requirement at Baylor University. I’m deathly afraid of rodents).
I pitched the story to my then agent, who pitched it to my then editor. My editor made an offer on the book, but my agent encouraged me to turn it down. So, I did.
Years later, I was having lunch with an old friend from summer camp. When I say an old friend, I mean we’d first met when we were about eight years old and approximately 40 years later we were still getting together and laughing and talking. This day, we were scarfing down Mexican food at Hula Hut on Lake Austin, when my friend announced that she and another camp friend had decided what book I should write next – “Tracey Tarlton,” she said.
“What?” I screamed. I didn’t know how my friend even knew about the case. For years, she’d been living overseas. But then she explained that Tracey was the Tracey Tarlton at our summer camp. In full disclosure, Tracey and I never really knew each other at camp. I just knew who she was, and, obviously, we had many of the same friends. In fact, I eventually learned that my friend had been a mentor to Tracey.
With that, I had to write the book. It was my story. I planned on it being the last true crime book I ever wrote, and I planned on it being the best true crime book I ever wrote.
Well, half came true – it is the last true crime book I ever plan on writing. But according to many, it is the worst true crime book I ever wrote, and it’s not my story. The reasons for that are many, and I don’t feel like confessing them right now. Let’s just say I take the blame. But the good news is that the events surrounding that book solidified my decision to never write true crime again.
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Of course, even when one makes a decision that is right for her, it doesn’t mean it’s a decision without mourning. Today one of those proverbial waves of sadness washed over me when I learned what I had long suspected – The Fortune Hunter has gone out of print. I knew this day was coming. In December of 2009, I emailed my editor and asked if it was out of print – too many people had told me they couldn’t find the book. My editor had someone else email me that the book was still available.
In early September 2010, there was a bit of renewed interest in the book. Once again, people emailed me that they couldn’t find it and wanted a copy. Again, I figured it was out of print. But some people searched, begged, and found a copy. Courtney Little’s mother, Connie, was one of them. Connie – a friend from high school – read the book and passed it on to Courtney, which resulted in Courtney’s Facebook post of today.
Courtney doesn’t know how perfect her note and timing were. It helped with that wash of sadness. So did her mother’s Facebook comment: “You know what I like about Celeste? She makes me look like a really GOOD mother.”
I know, I know, I shouldn’t be sad. I’m on to a new, exciting challenge writing a memoir—Secret Sex Lives: A Year on the Fringes of American Sexuality. And though I say I’m finished with true crime, Wages of Sin is returning to print next month. Still, I also know that it’s time to move on. But before I do, I want to say thank you. Thank you, Courtney, for making me smile. Thank you, Connie, for making me laugh. And thank you to all my true crime friends. You have changed my life. You have made it better. I hope you’ll consider following me into my new world of writing.
In the meantime, let me introduce you to Stephanie Martin, the killer in Wages of Sin, the woman I refer to as the Southern Baptist killer stripper. She was reared Southern Baptist, became a stripper, and then a killer. I wonder what Courtney will say about having lunch with Stephanie.