Carrie Stuart Parks is an artist, turned forensic artist, turned FBI trainer, turned novelist. And boy, does she have a lot to write about! Carrie talks with us about her Gwen Marcey forensic mysteries, and explains how her professional experience has played such a big role in her stories.
Your background in law enforcement is such a big part of grounding your mysteries. What are your credentials?
I’m a certified composite artist, forensic artist by the International Association for Identification. I am a forensic art instructor and my husband and I are the largest forensic art instructors in the world. We’re teaching the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation at the Tennessee Bureau plus law enforcement agencies from all over the US.
How long have you been doing this kind of work?
I’ve been a professional artist since 1974. I was a professional artist in water color and drawing and wrote five books on drawing and water color. Starting 1981 I started working at the North Idaho Regional Crime Lab. In ’85 I went to the FBI academy. 10 years later, I went back and taught the FBI.
With When Death Draws Near (Thomas Nelson), you’re now three books into your mystery series starring Gwen Marcey. She’s a forensic expert who has grown quite a bit from the first novel until now. Can you catch us up on her character arc across this series?
The first book, A Cry From The Dust, opens with her working on an 1852 massacre site in Southern Utah. Gwen is about a couple months out of her last chemo, so she’s bald. She’s wearing a wig. Her life is a mess. Her husband has divorced her. Her daughter is acting out. I mean it couldn’t be any worse. She goes through that particular book trying to find out why all the things that happened. She goes into the whole maze of Fundamentalist Mormonism. I did a lot of research into Mormonism and that whole avenue plus the historical events, which I found riveting.
The second book is The Bones Will Speak. I was just going write about a straightforward serial killer when I got a call from [her publisher], and they go, “We just love the way you weave, you know, real things into it.” I asked, “How important is that? Because I’m not ready for that.” And they said, “We really liked learning about something else.” I thought, well, I worked on a group called the Phineas Priesthood in the ’90s.
This was an actual case you worked on?
Yes. I did 16 drawings for the FBI on that case. Phineas Priesthood is out of the Christian Identity Movement, and the Phineas Priesthood is the most violent of the Christian Identity groups. They were a perfect place to start. There was a cell in Spokane that I worked with the police and the FBI to help to identify them and bring them to trial.
Now we’re on the third book, When Death Draws Near. Gwen has come quite a ways. What is she like in the third book?
She’s aiming toward a job. Her daughter is becoming less horrible. Her husband is still horrible. She takes a temporary job in Pikeville, Kentucky, Eastern Kentucky, because they have a serial rapist. She flies out to do that job and it turns out that all the victims are disappearing. They don’t have anybody for her to interview. The sheriff seems disinterested in having her work for him, which is weird. She thinks, “Why’d you have me come out if you don’t really need me?” When the last victim disappears, she’s put on another job, which is to investigate the Appalachian Pentecostal snake handlers. She goes undercover. I chose Kentucky because Kentucky is the only state in the U.S. that has not only outlawed snake handling, but also specifically for religious services.
I thought it was illegal everywhere.
No. We went into Jolo, West Virginia to a snake handling.
Where does Gwen go from here?
Book number four has been turned in. My editor wanted me to move away from religious groups, so this time Gwen goes into a homicide in North Central Idaho. There are missing children. It’s about the American Indian movement, so it still has strong belief systems. It goes into the history, the Wounded Knee incident, the Pine Ridge.