Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

How Dan Markel's Murder Led Todd Henderson To Write His First Novel, Mental State

Mental StateM. Todd Henderson (Chicago), Mental State (2018):

When conservative law professor Alex Johnson is found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound at his house in Chicago, everyone thinks it is suicide. Everyone except his brother, Royce, an FBI agent.

Without jurisdiction or leads, Agent Johnson leaves his cases and family to find out who killed his brother. There are many suspects: the ex-wife, an ambitious doctor with expensive tastes and reasons to hate her ex; academic rivals on a faculty divided along political lines; an African-American student who failed the professor’s course.

As Agent Johnson peels back layers of mystery in his rogue investigation, the brother he never really knew emerges. Clues lead from the ivy-covered elite university and the halls of power in Washington to the gritty streets of Chicago and Lahore, Pakistan. Ultimately, Agent Johnson must face the question of how far he is willing to go to catch his brother’s killer.

Mental State is about two brothers learning about each other in death, and about the things people will do when convinced they are in the right. 

Los Angeles Review of Books, DC State of Mind:

ANTHONY FRANZE: To call your novel timely is an understatement: a Supreme Court nominee navigating the confirmation process, child sex abuse, and shades of the real-life upcoming trial of murdered law professor Dan Markel. What inspired your story?

TODD HENDERSON: Interesting that you mention Dan Markel. He was my friend. When he was murdered in the summer of 2014 after dropping his kids off at daycare, it really rattled me. For weeks, all I could think of is why anyone would kill someone who led such a seemingly uninteresting life. A life just like mine. As I imagined the possibilities, a story formed in my mind. It had nothing to do with Dan; it was something I made up to make sense of his killing. Writing about it started out as a way to deal with Dan’s murder, but it ended up being a way for me to excise my own demons. The story was completed that summer, long before the #MeToo movement or the retirement of Justice Kennedy. But the themes of sexual abuse and the corruption of power are always relevant.

It’s funny you describe the book as excising your own demons because the story seemed very personal. After all, you’re a conservative professor at a prestigious law school, and the book centers around the murder of a conservative professor at a prestigious law school. How much did you draw from your own life?

Some of the characters started out as seeds based on people I know. Alex, the murdered professor, is very loosely based on me. Royce, the hero, is an FBI agent, like my own brother was. But the similarities end there. All of the characters are completely made up. As each of them grew on the page, they morphed into their own people, bearing little resemblance to their human analogues. As for the plot, it is completely fictional. Certain things that happen to the characters, such as the sexual abuse, are drawn from my own experiences. They’ve been dramatized, of course, but part of the joy of writing this book was to tell some of my stories. I’ve never told anyone many of my secrets, and coming out about what happened to me as a child through fictional characters was cathartic. ...

You mention Judge Kavanaugh, but you obviously wrote the book before the contentious battle over his nomination. The way you described the fictional president’s repeated missteps in picking a nominee reminded me of President Nixon’s comical gaffes in the failed nominees that ultimately led him to choose Chief Justice Rehnquist. Did you use the Nixon debacle as inspiration?

Yes, I did. Nixon is the gift that keeps on giving for political satirists. But he wasn’t alone in this. There have been many failed nominations of one kind or another — President Clinton wanted Mario Cuomo on the Court, and President Bush picked Harriet Miers. I was most drawn in by the story of how Justice Kennedy got on the Supreme Court. After President Reagan’s first pick — Robert Bork — got voted down, he went to Douglas Ginsburg, but he dropped out because he’d smoked dope. Ultimately, Reagan settled on Kennedy as a safe bet. What interested me here is that the arc from Bork to Ginsburg to Kennedy was from extreme conservative to mainstream conservative to moderate conservative. The lesson I took was that a failed nomination means not just that you don’t get your guy, but that the guy you get may be very different in terms of ideology. And, as the Garland episode and the Kavanaugh nomination show us today, the stakes for control of the Court are enormous. Lives and fortunes hang in the balance. Mental State asks what people might be willing to do as a result.

Praise for Mental State:

“When his brother dies of an apparent suicide, FBI agent Royce Johnson is the only investigator who knows it’s murder. Thus begins a taut, spellbinding journey through the dark, dank corridors of his family’s past and a shocking criminal enterprise. A well-written, fast-paced, rollercoaster of a ride you won’t put down until the last paragraph.” —Jack Getze, author of the award-winning Austin Carr Mystery Series

“Right on time, Todd Henderson delivers a punch to the zeitgeist with this political thriller that posits the unthinkable: corruption in the White House. Fasten your life jacket for a tour of the rot from sea to shining sea. Sinister, engrossing and devilishly finessed.” —Les Edgerton, author of Adrenaline JunkieThe Genuine, Imitation, Plastic KidnappingThe Rapist and others.

“Exciting and compulsively readable, Mental State marks the entrance of a striking new talent on the thriller scene. Todd Henderson’s confident debut draws the reader into the unfamiliar worlds of academia, the law, and backroom politics, while providing a fresh take on more familiar thriller ground like the world of law enforcement. The Professor’s murder mystery delivers the rough and tumble goods, and it will leave readers wanting more.” —Kurt Schlichter, lawyer and bestselling author

Mental State is fascinating, detailed, and a pure page-turner. It's a must-read if you love the country, the Supreme Court, or just a book that will keep you up at night.” —Ben Shapiro, public intellectual, talk-show host, and bestselling author

“Try as I might, I could not put Mental State down. It’s terrific. At times hilarious, always interesting, and in parts truly disturbing. I loved it.” —Michael Seidman, Professor of Law at Georgetown University Law Center

“John Grisham and James Patterson have had a love-child and his name is Todd Henderson. Even if you gave up biting your nails in 7th grade, Mental State will bring you back to your nubs. Henderson’s debut novel had me white-knuckling it from chapter to chapter in this heady, emotional, suspenseful and expertly-crafted page-turner. Royce Johnson is a man on a mission, filled with rage and a hunger for the truth—Ethan Hunt ain’t got nothing on him!” —Mark Feuerstein, film and television actor

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