Behind The Book by Chris Formant

Bright Midnight coverOne evening, I was walking through my rock memorabilia gallery, with The Doors music in the background, and I stopped to study my latest addition: a two-page article in the Record Mirror from 1964 announcing a hot new band: The Rolling Stones. What struck me the most was how young they were. Before me was a fresh-faced Keith Richards, a teenaged Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones, the founder of the Stones. Hanging beside them were articles about Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison and The Doors.

Besides being the soundtrack of my youth, there was something else that connected them. Jones, Hendrix and Morrison all died at the age 27 under cloudy circumstances, had poor to non-existent autopsies with weak investigations of the circumstances. Urban legends and conspiracy theories have swirled around their deaths for almost 50 years.

An idea got in my head at just that moment that I couldn’t shake and kept haunting me for days. What if they didn’t die by accident? What if they all were murdered? I started writing down some ideas, doing a little background reading and some light research. The more I scratched the surface, the more deeply I got drawn in.

That is how BRIGHT MIDNIGHT got started. A fictional murder mystery that reimagines the deaths of iconic late 60s and 70s rock stars, not as accidents but as murders.
With the fictional murder hypothesis as a starting point, I read everything that I could about the rock stars: their lives, their situations at the time of their death, how they died, their autopsies, the investigations or lack thereof, and the state of the music industry during that time period.

The original story line and characters, which changed dozens of times, was the easy part.  Bringing them to life as empathetic victims was more challenging. But the most difficult part was in crafting a believable investigation and possible sophisticated murder techniques that would be intriguing and believable through the eyes of a 21st-century reader.

A former editor of Rolling Stone magazine helped provide some insight into the personalities of many of the stars.  Almost all of them had been caricatured over time as drunks or drug-addled hippies. The reality is that most were jovial, smart and extremely creative musical geniuses. Few had much business sense. The result being they were taken advantage of from the start and had little to show for their success. Most suffered from continual management and contractual issues. Each was a victim, in their own way.

I also gained access to some of the unique information that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has in its archives, including original editor and reporter files on each rock star at the time of their death and cassette tape interviews of key people after they died. These artifacts brought the era to life, and illuminated the weak investigations and adversarial relationships that the rock stars had with the authorities.

A former senior FBI official and a former FBI investigator, along with a former NYPD investigator, helped me understand the processes and techniques used. But most importantly, they guided me toward the textbooks and modern cold-case investigative techniques that could apply.

Lastly, a top neurosurgeon and researcher from Johns Hopkins Medicine interpreted the autopsies and suggested alternative means by which the stars could have died physically and chemically. Those insights were extremely insightful in identifying fundamental flaws in previous autopsies and investigations, as well the limitations of forensic technical analysis 50 years ago.

That set the stage for a creative re-imaging of the deaths, seen through the lenses of modern forensic practices and with the application of the latest technology. But even the latest technology couldn’t bridge some of the investigative gaps.

So, being a technologist, I imagined new technologies that are not currently in existence or considered highly experimental. The joys of fiction!

One of the technologies I created was a digital fabric analysis via photo analytics, not unlike the technique used when a clothing fiber is found at the murder scene. In this case, it is digitally identified and deconstructed from photos or surveillance tapes. In BRIGHT MIDNIGHT, this allowed the FBI to identify the fabric type, the manufacturer, and the possible retail outlet and time period. Ultimately it is narrowed to a retail location, where access to surveillance video identified a key person of interest in the story.

Another imagined technology was the use of a virtual crime scene simulator that created life-size holographic murder scenes from the original crime scene photos. Extremely graphic, these allowed a unique 3-dimensional recreation of the murder scene that could be simulated and alternative scenarios tested in order to try to isolate and confirm or contest the original investigation findings. Additionally, 3-D printed life-size component parts could be made from the holographic images, allowing an external physical examination of the body or areas of interest at the crime scene. Both technologies sound like they could be possible in the future, so their application in BRIGHT MIDNIGHT as current advanced forensic technologies used by the Behavioral Analysis Unit in Quantico seems realistic.

One thing that proved key to creating unique murder devices and creative delivery mechanisms were actually the autopsies themselves combined with the limited forensic techniques used at that time. That combination allowed me to envision a much wider set of possible murder options than I could have otherwise. For example: I was able reverse engineer possible chemical causes of some of the murders by accumulating a list of all the possible drugs/chemicals that would leave the chemical traces identified in the original autopsy. Then I brainstormed the possible undetectable delivery vehicles at that time. The result was shocking but possible murder scenarios.

I included the application of the massive computer capability of big data analytical platforms and applications that could be used to stitch disparate data bases together and create unique analytical insights to help guide the investigation. It could also compare patterns of behavior as to possible motivations based on historical multiple-killing behavioral patterns.

The result of this melding of modern forensic techniques, imagined future technologies, and advanced analytics with old fashioned investigative gut instincts created a unique, fictional rock-and-roll murder mystery that brings the craft of thriller writing to the genre for the first time.

Chris Formant