Murder, she's writing
For two decades, forensic anthropologist Debra Komar wrote official reports about murder, massacre, and mayhem in far-off lands. Now retired, she’s turning the literary side of her talents to home-grown historical non-fiction.
Imagine a football field in which the bodies of 900 murder victims lie buried in a mass grave. Before Debra Komar, MSc’96, became a best-selling author, she spent the last 12 years of her 20-year career as a forensic anthropologist excavating and investigating such grisly sites.
In Iraq, she once unearthed the corpses of 200 murdered children. “If you sat down and thought about it, you wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning,” she reflects. “There’s a process you have to get through and stay in work mode till it’s done.”
Debra’s unique career working for Physicians for Human Rights, the International Commission on Missing Persons, the United Nations (UN), and the U.S. Department of Justice, and testifying at the Iraqi High Tribunal led her to write many scholarly articles, and to co-author the textbook Forensic Anthropology: Contemporary Theory and Practice. But after 20 years in the field, the last 12 after her Queen’s MSc, the Toronto native decided to retire and do something different. One thing she had always yearned to do was write a book for general audiences.
“I’m only 48, but when you look at what I did for a living, every year was like a ‘dog year’ [multiplied by seven]” she says. “I had no qualms about retiring.”
Debra has dedicated her debut work – The Ballad of Jacob Peck (Goose Lane, $19.95) – to two friends who encouraged her to follow her dreams. “I spent a decade in university and another 20 years building a specialized career, only to walk away from it,” says Debra. “That didn’t strike some people as a very good idea.”
The critics disagree. The Ballad of Jacob Peck – the first of a planned series of “historical murder mystery books in reverse” – has received some rave reviews, including a Globe and Mail recommendation as the #1 Non-Fiction book for spring 2013.
The book recounts the true story of a chilling 1805 New Brunswick murder. Debra applied modern forensic techniques in her investigation of the crime, in which farmer Amos Babcock fell under the sway of a mysterious itinerant preacher named Jacob Peck, who convinced him to kill his own sister.
“Although I knew the Canadian folksong by the late John Bottomley, at the risk of sounding stupid, I didn’t know it was about a real situation. Everybody’s killed somebody in a Maritime ballad,” she laughs.
Her background as a forensics expert proved invaluable. “I’ve done a lot of genocide work for which the person held responsible never actually killed anybody; they got someone else to do it for them. I wanted to look at that mechanism and to answer the question, ‘How do you go about grooming people to the point where they will literally kill for you?’”
It took Debra only about four months to do research and another four months write her book. She traveled to the National Archives and throughout New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in search of information. “At one point I was hunting down people to find stuff in their attic!” she says.
Once Debra got writing, she found it a relief and a pleasure to be able to say things in a more lyrical way than she had in writing an autopsy report. “You can’t have any personality writing those,” she explains.
“You start by interviewing the witnesses. Then you find out where the burial sites are, do the excavation, retrieve the bodies, do autopsies, identify the victims, return them to their families, and put together a case file: Who were these people, and what happened to them? Then you bring that to the court and you testify. Hopefully, somebody is held accountable.”
Debra’s greatest challenge in crafting a work of historical non-fiction was changing her writing style. “Of the four books I’m planning, Jacob Peck is the most academic. The next three will be more what you’d expect for a general audience.”
Debra has moved to the Maritimes to be close to her subject matter and the archives she needs for her research. It’s a bonus that she so enjoys writing and doing crafts in her home by the ocean in Annapolis Royal, an historic Nova Scotia community on the Bay of Fundy.
Looking back at her former life, she says, “When you’re deployed, you work, eat, pass out from fatigue, and then work again. To spend a night knitting something is such a treat!”