Certain people, events and occurrences stick with me and no matter what I do, I can’t forget about them. The death of three men in Bristol, England is something I’ve never forgotten. They died a few months apart some time in the late eighties. They weren’t murdered and it wasn’t accidental. All three committed suicide.
What drew my attention to these men was the circumstances of their deaths. All three died in the same city, and they were all working on the same government project. The first man walked into the sea. The second hanged himself from the Clifton Suspension Bridge. The third tied a rope around a tree trunk then around his neck, got into his car and drove away as fast as he could until he ran out of rope. Needless to say, the deaths made the news, albeit not on a national scale. The obvious questions were raised. Why did these men kill themselves? And did it have anything to do with their work? The questions went unanswered. The story sunk below the surface as swiftly as the first victim. Anytime anyone mentions Bristol or the Clifton Suspension Bridge, I think about these men’s deaths.
A lot of my fiction is inspired by real life events, but I don’t like to lift fact and fictionalize it. These men’s deaths intrigued me, but I didn’t want to go trawling through their lives for entertainment purposes. While I’m inspired by real life, I’m squeamish when it comes to using real people’s lives in my books. Due to the sensitive nature of the deaths, I was especially squeamish. Primarily, I want to entertain, not offend. These men were somebody’s husband, son, brother and friend. I don’t want their family and friends reading what is very real to them in a fictionalized venue. I do this because if I were in their shoes I wouldn’t want something very private to me made public irrespective whether it is public domain or not.
So when it came to writing We All Fall Down, I used the premise of a string of suicides for the backbone of the story, but that was it. The book is set in affluent Marin County north of San Francisco and the work the victims were involved in is completely different. I didn’t research these men’s deaths or their circumstances at the time. Instead, I preoccupied myself with reasons for anyone to commit suicide. I suppose this is a sensitive subject for me seeing as I’ve known three people who have killed themselves. While I was searching for reasons, a couple of unrelated news stories provided ample motive for suicide-or in this case, staged suicides.
Seeing as dead men can’t tell tales, I inserted a character with a similar background to my own to unearth the mystery. I’m a mechanical engineer by trade and through my middle to late twenties; I worked as an independent contractor to a number of firms. Although I was one of the team, I was an outsider. Office politics and rumor floated just above my stratosphere. Every now and then, I’d catch a snippet that explained the office dynamic. In We All Fall Down, Hayden Duke is hired on short contract to help a firm finish a hush-hush engineering project after one of the employees commits suicide. He knows there’s something up at the firm, especially when several other employees die. He takes an active role after witnessing the death of his college friend and the person responsible for getting him the job.
I didn’t set out to answer the question why three men killed themselves in Bristol. Instead, I’ve invented a story to satisfy my curiosity. Whatever the reasons behind the original deaths, I hope these men are truly at rest.