The following is an audio interview, and a transcription, with Margaret Murray, author of Forging Justice: A Restorative Justice Mystery, published in September 2013 and available now in the IIRP Book Store.
Joshua Wachtel: Welcome, I have Margaret Murray on the line. She’s the author of a new book, Forging Justice: A Restorative Justice Mystery. She’s also the librarian at the IIRP, and a 2013 graduate of the IIRP Graduate School. Welcome, Margaret.
Margaret Murray: Thank you, Josh. I’m really happy to be here.
JW: Well, I’m looking forward to talking to you about your new book, which is just out. Can you tell us a little bit about it?
MM: Yes, it’s what I’m hoping is the world’s first restorative mystery. It’s basically a story about a police detective in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who’s beginning to think she just wasted the last twelve years of her life because she keeps arresting the same people for larger and larger crimes. In the process of solving a crime she comes across a high school vice principal who uses restorative practices. She doesn’t think he really knows much of anything, but she decides she’ll put up with him just long enough to get him to help her do what she needs to do to solve the case. In the process, she finds out that in fact he does know a few things that could be helpful to her both professionally and personally.
JW: What inspired you to write this type of book?
MM: It was a combination of two things, I suppose. One, I’ve always loved mysteries and wanted to write a series, actually, and have them published. But then the practical part of that was the feedback I was getting from agents and editors after I submitted my first couple of manuscripts. They said that the writing was fine, but that I needed some new concept. The things I was writing previously were a lot like other things that were out there, traditional mysteries, something called the “cozy domestic,” where the crime is never too gruesome and it’s all contained within an academic setting. Based on that feedback I started to think about where was I going to get this new concept, what could that new concept possibly be?
As this was happening, I became the librarian at the IIRP Graduate School and began to learn about restorative practices. I knew nothing about it when I first came there. I knew a little bit about restorative justice. As I worked there I just began to be so impressed by the environment in which I was working, and I just wanted to know why it was such a great working environment, quite frankly. Eventually I started to think about whether or not restorative practices could be incorporated into a mystery, and if in fact that could be the new concept I was looking for.
JW: So that’s really interesting. You came to all of this from the point of view of being a librarian. Restorative practices wasn’t your practice, you didn’t know about police work, you didn’t know about what teachers were doing in schools, and yet that’s what you bring into this novel.
MM: Yes, absolutely.
JW: As I have been reading the novel, I’ve really been wondering, “How are you going to do this? What’s so mysterious about restorative justice?” I thought it was really interesting that you brought in this character who’s a principal who uses restorative justice in his school. He makes a connection with a police officer between the work he’s doing and her work, which then gets applied in a real criminal situation.
MM: Well, I was with the Graduate School, but we also have the Continuing Education Division, which was the original part of the organization. And I listen a lot, so I would hear people talk about who was finding restorative practices useful, and how they were using it. I would pick up little bits and pieces that would get lodged in my brain.
I remember somebody telling me at one point, for example, that young police officers aren’t particularly interested in restorative practices or any other alternatives. They’re fresh out of the Academy. They intend to put the bad people away and reduce crime, and all those sorts of things. And it isn’t until you’ve been doing the job for maybe ten years or something that you start to realize you’re not having the effect you want to have. You think, “What else might be out there?”
I was hearing the same thing from teachers. It’s like you have to be in the profession long enough to recognize that you don’t quite have the tools that you need to create the kind of environment and make the changes you want to. But you’re not sure why, because you’ve been educated in your specific profession, which should make you think you’ve got everything you need. Teachers and police officers, for example, discover after a few years of practicing in those professions that something is lacking, and they start looking for what that other thing might be.
JW: I noticed that in the book. Your main character is sort of this hardened female cop who’s seen it all, but at the same time she’s able to learn through this experience. She’s kind of thrust into being the lead investigator on this case she’s working on, and as she goes she’s just open enough to learning something new.
MM: Yes. We all know that feeling sometimes when you are in a place where you may not necessarily be interested in the information that people have, but they have something else that you want. In this case the main character wants this vice principal’s help to track down some suspects in a case. As she spends time with him, she can’t help but be affected by the things that he knows through the experience that he has. She can’t dismiss him as easily as she first did because what he’s saying resonates with her. This makes her at least curious enough to want to know if in fact he has information that would be helpful to her even beyond the case, for her larger professional life, but then also her personal life as it turns out.
JW: It seems to me you must have had to do a lot of research for this book. You have things about the schools. You have things about the juvenile justice system, which I never read in any book, and I think most people probably don’t know about. You’ve got a gang situation that’s kind of there in the background. Do you want to talk about some of the research you had to do to learn about all these different areas?
MM: Sure, that was actually one of the biggest challenges, finding out all I needed to know about these different aspects for writing the book. And it’s still one of the things that makes me a little bit nervous, you know, “Have I got all the facts right?”
What I did – and this is where I used one of the courses at the IIRP Graduate School to help me – we used something called a Professional Learning Group (PLG), which you’re probably familiar with. I decided to use mine to try and help me to figure out, “How can I get more information on these particular aspects for the novel?” but also, “What could the novel look like? How are people using restorative practices in the world, in which circumstances, and will it make sense for the book?”
A number of people in my classes, including one of my good friends now, Dawn Schantz, turns out to be in the juvenile probation system in Northampton County, Pennsylvania. She’s been there a long time and she was just so generous with her time and with her experience, and answering countless questions. Other people helped me learn about the educational system in Pennsylvania.
I came up with a list of people and just started calling them and said, “Would you be willing to talk to me?” It’s that sort of surprising thing that always turns out to be true. People really love to talk about what they do, and what they found works for them and what doesn’t. Just kind of from one person to another I kept going. And then I’d go back to them and say, “Have I got this right? Have I got that right?”
Also, there was a police officer in one of my courses and I interviewed her during lunch one day to talk to her about what her job was like and how she saw using restorative practices in some procedural things. I interviewed a head of security of a college here in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who had a lot of experience both from an academic and a police point of view. So I took a lot of notes and did a lot of interviews and then every time I was worried I didn’t quite have it right I’d just go back to them, and they were all terrific.
JW: So you set your book in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, which is where you live and where the IIRP Graduate School is based. What appealed to you besides those facts that made you want to set your book there?
MM: Well, I’ve lived in Bethlehem for nine years now, and one of the most outstanding physical features of the city you can’t help but see when you first come in – I think it struck me the first day I was here – was the abandoned Bethlehem Steel site. As it turns out, right now I live about three blocks away, because I live on the South Side of Bethlehem. A city like this has been around a long time. The steel industry really dominated and gave life to the city. And then you think about how devastating it must have been when that was gone.
Just that actual physical background, with the steel plant, what people’s lives must have been like and what they’re like now. That just seemed to work with the whole idea of being forced to look for new ways to move ahead, to develop, to grow – having to change, being forced to change.
It actually turned out to be a kind of nice metaphor for what happens with a lot of people when they encounter restorative practices and restorative justice. There’s a lot of that feeling of not necessarily wanting to change but just realizing, “We can’t go down that path any longer. It’s just not working. We need something else.”
So the setting and the topic kind of came together nicely. Plus, living here, it’s so easy to kind of soak up the atmosphere.
JW: Who do you see as being particularly interested in your novel? Who should read this book?
MM: Well, hopefully everyone. (Laughs.) But quite seriously...
JW: It is a page turner. I’m not quite finished with it, though I nearly stayed up all night. I plan to get back to it as shortly after this interview as I can. (Laughs.)
MM: Thank you. I’m really glad to hear that. I actually wrote it with two audiences in mind, and that again was a real balancing act. I mean, I wanted to write an entertaining book. I did want to write a page turner. I’ve been a mystery fan since I was a kid. I couldn’t get enough of them. And so I wanted it to work on that level.
But at the same time, every time I read a mystery, and most books that I read, I like to learn something along the way. I hope to be introduced both to new characters and new situations, and maybe a new location. So I saw a big part of the book as being an entertaining educational vehicle. Somebody could pick up a book, and not know anything about restorative practices, the way I was nine years ago when I first came to work for the IIRP, and get an idea of what that means.
The basic question I was trying to answer for that part of the readership was, “So what would restorative practices look like in real life?” Because that was my first thought: “I mean, that all sounds really good and interesting, but what would that look like? What would that mean on a day to day basis? What would that be like in people’s lives?” So part of what I was trying to do with the mystery was to sketch that out and say, “This is what it would look like. Here’s what would happen. Instead of what used to happen, or in addition to what now happens, this is also what would happen.”
JW: Yeah, I really got that feeling as I’ve been reading the book, restorative practices is sort of woven into the daily life of people who are using it. It doesn’t feel like you’re just explaining restorative practices, but that it really has a chance to breathe. So I appreciate that point of view that the book is both instructional and also entertaining at the same time.
MM: Oh, good. That’s exactly what I was going for. I mean, nobody wants to be hit over the head with “Okay, now here’s a lesson for you. Here’s the moral of the story.” But at the same time, reading fiction is one of the easiest and most fun ways to learn something. That sense that restorative practices is woven into the actual fiber of what’s happening with these people, their lives, their city. It’s easier to absorb. It’s more enjoyable.
JW: You said you’ve read a lot of mysteries. Who are some of the people who influenced you the most, some of the mystery writers you loved to read?
MM: I’ve been reading mysteries since I was a kid. It may surprise people, but if you think about it there actually are mysteries for that age group. Then, as I got a little bit older, I read the usual things like Agatha Christie. I was always looking for mysteries with good female protagonists.
Somebody, though, who made a huge impact on me was P. D. James. I don’t know how much of her work you know. She’s an English mystery writer. The thing that struck me about her work was that she was able to create empathy for all of the characters in a mystery, including all of the suspects. Often mysteries are two-dimensional in a way, they’re full of stock characters that sort of fill a space in the mystery. She was able to write all the suspects with three dimensions to all of them, so that by the time she was finished and you got to find out who committed the crime, you could actually understand why these people were trapped in particular situations so that they might do something really desperate.
I had the opportunity to meet her, actually, a couple of years ago when I was in England, and I said that to her. She’s 90 or 92 by now, maybe. She looked at me and said, “Oh, thank you. It’s very encouraging.” And I just thought that was hysterical. I think she was using the English sense of “that’s encouraging” as “That’s good to hear that. That’s what I was trying to do.” But it sounded to me like, she’s 90, she’s very successful, but it’s still encouraging to hear as she goes along in her career. She has to be one of the biggest influences, I think.
JW: Right. Well, I noticed that with all the characters there is a sympathy that I have for them. Even with a couple who have committed some pretty serious crimes in your novel.
You mentioned that you did find mysteries to read when you were a child. I’m wondering, do you see this as a book that young readers, young adult readers, might find interesting for them?
MM: Yes, I think so, because three of the characters are basically adolescent girls. One of them in particular, the one that we end up learning the most about, is in that place in her life where something happens to her that she feels is unjust. She has a choice to make, and she makes the wrong choice initially.
I suspect that there’s a lot of things in there that adolescents in particular could relate to. That sense of being with your peer group and how they’re more important that anything else, but recognizing at the same time that you could make one choice, turn a corner and find yourself in a place that you had no wish to be in, with no idea that things could get that serious that quickly.
JW: As I’ve been reading the book, I’ve been wondering about young audiences. I feel like I’ve been really able to relate to the main character, Claire Cassidy, an adult who’s going for this promotion in the police department. At the same time, she’s sort of struggling with her own thoughts and her own view on how she wants to do her job, and what’s right and wrong. I could see teens getting a glimpse into adult life through her narrative in a really positive way.
MM: Oh, that’s a really interesting observation, because you hit on an important point. It’s often, I think, a surprise for adolescents to learn that adults are more three dimensional than they sometimes appear to them, and that in fact they are struggling with things themselves. They don’t have all the answers. They have questions and doubts themselves, and that is probably something that continues for most adults.
JW: Margaret, I really appreciate your taking some time to talk to me. Are there any last words you’d like to say to people about your book, something that I might have missed, or something you’d like them to think about as they’re reading it.
MM: Just that I hope they enjoy it, and if they do, share it with somebody else. I think more than anything I’d like people to learn more about restorative practices and the potential for what it can do in so many areas of life. It’s certainly been my impression, since I’ve been working at the IIRP, that restorative practices was used for very specific things, like in schools for example. But the more I learned about it, even in the first few months, I just kept thinking I couldn’t imagine a walk of life where this wouldn’t be welcome and useful. So help spread the word.
Forging Justice: A Restorative Mystery by Margaret Murray, Piper's Press, 2013, may be purchased in paperback and ebook formats from the IIRP book store and other online sellers.