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Lucy Michael

Lucy Michael

Lucy Michael was born and raised in Lake Bluff, IL. While a graduate student she researched the mysterious death of Elfrieda Knaak, upon which her story is based.

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If Nack hits 500 pre-orders by Thursday 1 November 2018 5 P.M. UTC, then it will be pitched to 6 traditional publishers when the campaign ends. If Nack hits 250 pre-orders by Thursday 1 November 2018 5 P.M. UTC, then it will be pitched to 36 independent publishers when the campaign ends. If Nack hits 100 pre-orders by Thursday 1 November 2018 5 P.M. UTC, then it will be pitched to 34 hybrid publishers when the campaign ends. If Nack hits 50 pre-orders by Thursday 1 November 2018 5 P.M. UTC, then it will be pitched to 27 service publishers when the campaign ends. If Nack hits 500 pre-orders by Thursday 1 November 2018 5 P.M. UTC, then it will be pitched to 103 publishers when the campaign ends.
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Nack

A teacher's summer break in her hometown turns into a search for the truth behind the bizarre discovery of a naked and burned woman at the village hall.

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Mystery Cozy #1 in Mystery
Lake Bluff, Illinois
55,000 words
100% complete
2 publishers interested

Synopsis

Recently much attention has been paid to stories of young ambitious women being abused by powerful men.  The MeToo movement has done much to raise awareness about this phenomenon, but for every publicized report of a person abusing their power, many unknown women and men have been overlooked and even blamed for the very crimes perpetrated against them.  Inspired by the evidence and research of the mysterious death of Elfrieda Knaak, Nack answers readers’ desire to revisit the past with a new social awareness and understanding.

Because Nack is inspired by an unsolved case that received national press attention in 1928 and which is ranked online as one of the ten greatest mysteries of all time, this story will have a strong pull on true crime fans as well as lovers of conundrums. Even for those who have already studied the original case, Nack will appeal to readers who are seeking new theories and who are willing to re-examine the case with a modern day sensibility of how the media can manipulate our understanding, and reflect contemporary social mores.  In this way, Nack is a cautionary tale for our times, when so much of what is seen and known about others come through media accounts and characterizations. 

This a story of  new type of woman- single, a graduate of the University of Chicago, and an ambitious saleswoman- and yet theories of her cause of death paid scant attention to these elements of her character.  Because of the more overt sexism of the times, she was not fairly treated by the press or authorities.  Having been fatally attacked, her name and legacy fell prey to a sensationalistic theory that blamed her mental weakness for her gruesome death.  That was a heavy legacy for her family to live with, and it is a legacy that is still reflected in modern-day accounts.

This book is needed to examine the validity of the conclusions of the reporters and authorities about the Knaak case, to present new avenues of inquiry that challenge the traditional “she did it to herself” narrative, and to contextualize the crime and its press coverage within the local mores of the time. While getting entertaining glimpses of the legendary characters and locations of the affluent towns north of Chicago, readers will learn how sensationalist and sloppy coverage of the press compounded a gruesome crime by targeting the victim’s character.  It will also show how armchair sleuths using online databases of regional newspapers can yield new discoveries about cold cases, and how the press has the power to shape the story it wants to sell, and obscure justice in doing so.  

Outline

The book’s chapters primarily alternate between two storylines set in the area of quaint lakeside town of Beach Grove, Illinois.  One storyline occurs during present day, the other in 1928.  Alexis, a history teacher, returns to her grandmother Pearl’s house during summer break. She stumbles upon a box with a photo of her grandmother as a child with her schoolteacher Frieda Nack, along with articles from regional newspapers detailing Nack’s death by allegedly burning herself out of love for a married policeman.  Alexis reaches out to colorful community members who are familiar with the case in her quest to learn whatever she can, with tantalizing and provocative results.  Through reviewing her grandmother’s leads, Alexis is able to uncover new clues about Nack’s death by studying the telling discrepancies of the press coverage in a fresh light.  

 Meanwhile, the 1928 storyline follows Frieda in the months leading up to her attack, covering her relationship with the silent film actor turned police officer, Charles Mitchell.  Her ambition to succeed as a saleswoman and as an actress in Mitchell’s anticipated film leads her to explore glitzy Golden Oaks, the rich sister city to Beach Grove, and to visit the legendary estate parties of the area and meet some of the its most colorful characters.  However, when she inadvertently stumbles upon secret dealings, danger is not far behind.  The final chapter provides a compelling and dramatic imagining of the final hours of Frieda Nack and an illustration of the forces at work which disrupted attempts at justice for her death.  

Audience

Beyond a local audience, it would appeal to true crime fans and lovers of conundrums.

Author

Lucy Michael was born and raised in Lake Bluff, Illinois.  She has previously written a screenplay about a female Civil War soldier, based on the life of Albert Cashier.  While attending Northwestern University for a teaching degree, she revisited a strange tale that had been told to her in junior high by the local historian, that of the furnace mystery in Lake Bluff.  Using an online collection of articles and artifacts at the local museum, she imagined a new narrative that was plausible, and from there she wrote Nack

Promotion

I have shared chapters of my work with people who belong to local book clubs, and because they are familiar with the area that inspired the story, the interest is unquestionable.  I give them several chapters at a time, and so far they keep requesting more.
I am an expert for this story in the way that many of us are experts of what the media sells us today.  In other words, I carefully question what the media wants me to accept on assumption.
As someone who was born and raised in the town where the crime that inspired this story was committed, I bring a particularly authentic view to providing the details about the aftermath of such a crime.
This is my first novel.  

Competition

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn, published by Broadway Books in 2007.  Similar themes of violence that is latent within a community and of a woman visiting and investigating a bizarre crime in a small town, however the crimes are ongoing in Flynn's book and her protagonist is a troubled reporter who needs to confront her own past.

The Girls by Emma Cline, published by Penguin in 2017.  Similar theme of carefree days of summer being disrupted by dark elements, but set in 1960's and focused upon a young teenager.

The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, published by Vintage in 1990.  It focuses directly on the fraught relationship between the press and murders that journalists cover and asks important moral questions that are echoed in Nack, but it focuses on a lawsuit between a journalist and murderer.

Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips, published by Scribner in 2014.  Similar in having the setting of Chicago around the time of Prohibition and based on an actual murder case, the theme of vulnerable women being targeted by men with a shadowy side is apparent here, as is the role of reporters in the pursuit if justice for the victim; however, unlike my story, the investigation and all of the storyline takes place in that one era.

Sample

In the guest bedroom, Alexis held the photo of her grandmother with the teacher. One of her grandmother’s hands clasped Elfrieda Nack’s and the other held a batch of bluebells. It was odd that Pearl had kept the photo but then hid it in the shed, almost as if she wanted to part with it but couldn’t—not fully. Alexis cleaned the dirt and cobwebs from the binder’s covers with a checkered cloth and placed it open on the bed.

There were at least a hundred news clippings included. Near the back was a long newspaper article, folded to fit the binder. Dated 1975, from the Bay County Examiner, it carried the headline “A Look Back at the Furnace Mystery.” She carefully spread it out.

"Frieda Nack came from a prominent family in Middleton, a town fifteen minutes south and west of Beach Grove. She had been a local schoolteacher for several years. During that time, she met and took lessons from Beach Grove night policeman Charles Mitchell, 45. Mitchell, known as “Mitch”, was a one-time vaudeville performer who toured on the national circuit and was cast in several silent films at Chicago’s Essanay Studios starring such talent as Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson. By day, Mitchell offered lessons from his Waukegan studio on elocution, salesmanship, and general psychology. At night he was on duty in the Beach Grove village hall as the night policeman, one of the town’s three policemen. No other tie between Nack and the village hall is known."

Louie Napoleon’s collar jangled as he padded his way across the lavender carpet. There was a short silence as he disappeared from view; he reappeared when he jumped onto the comforter. He stared at Alexis and began panting.

“You’re curious too, Big Nose?” She tapped his moist nose.

He blinked and curled up by a corner edge of the paper. She went back to reading.

"On the morning of Tuesday, October 30, 1928, Nack was allegedly found by the Beach Grove janitor, Chris Zylka. She was in the basement of the village hall, burned on her arms up to her shoulders and her legs down to her knees. The burns were so severe that they rendered her limbs completely black and charred. Zylka ran screaming back up the stairs.

Fincutter, the chief of police and the village marshal, was the next to go downstairs. 'Help me!' she said to him. He brought a glass of water to her and covered her with a blanket from the fire engine."

“She asked for help,” Alexis murmured. Louie’s ear twitched.

"Nack was brought to McAlister Hospital, where she lived for three more days, slipping in and out of consciousness. During that time, the press published reports that she had confessed to burning herself out of a desire for purity mixed with a testing of her love for Charles Mitchell. It was believed that she initially came to Beach Grove seeking him out on the night shift, unaware that he was at home with an injured leg. Using a key, she let herself into the furnace room to wait for him to arrive. Torn apart by this fruitless waiting, in the early morning she ritualistically removed her clothes and tossed all save her shoes, a watch, and a pocketbook in the furnace before proceeding to burn herself."

Louie started when a red-tailed hawk screeched outside. Alexis scratched him under his collar. He resumed resting his head on the comforter.

"There is one problem with this narrative, however. The furnace in the village hall had an opening of 8 inches by 10 inches, making the prospect that Nack had been able to burn her arms and legs with it impossible. In other words, Nack would have had to balance on one leg, burn it, then balance on the leg she had just burned, then hold her arms over the furnace fire one at a time—all while enduring excruciating pain."

Alexis shuddered.

"Doctors posited that through her desire to prove the purity of her love, Nack had entered a self-induced trance that allowed her not to feel pain as she sustained fourth-degree burns."

Alexis frowned and pursed her lips. How could a charred leg be physically able to support a woman’s body weight?

"Additionally, a soot mark on her forehead was reported initially as being a burn, yet hair was missing only from that section. Why didn’t the rest of her hair burn off, exposed as it was to an open flame? Doctors at McAlister Hospital couldn’t provide an answer and simply attested that she confessed to doing as much, yet skepticism remained.

What follows is a brief overview about the movements of Elfrieda Nack before her discovery in the furnace room of the Beach Grove village hall.

On Monday, October 29, Nack is last seen by her family in Middleton on her way out the door to a sales meeting in Chicago at F. E. Compton, a book firm for which she had been working since early summer. After successfully leading a sales pitch meeting, she says goodbye to her boss, Peter Foote, a bit after 6:15 and leaves the office to catch a train. At some point in the day, Elfrieda calls her older sister Diane to report that she has purchased some music, that she has decided not to go to the theater that night, and that she will be home around 7:30. She tells “Di” that when she returns, they’ll have a 'good sing.'

She gets off the North Shore Electric Line at 7:00 or 7:30 in Village Park, a station ten minutes south of Beach Grove and a five-minute bus ride west to her home in Middleton. She goes to the station agent and buys a round-trip ticket to Beach Grove on the North Shore Electric Line. Station agent Anna Rhodes later recalls that Nack was upbeat and confident as she tried to sell her a book. Rhodes then witnesses Nack make two calls from the platform’s phone booth. For one call she drops her voice low. The conversation lasts for about a minute. It is not clear what happens next; therefore the Village Park station is usually regarded as the last place where she was definitely seen until the next morning.

At 9:30 P.M., in Beach Grove, Barney Fincutter takes his dog with him to check on the village hall. Charles Mitchell, usually on the night shift, is at home with a broken leg, leaving the village hall closed for the night. Although Barney does not go into the basement, his dog wanders down and returns unperturbed. He locks all the doors and heads home.

In the early morning of Tuesday, October 30, Elizabeth Mitchell is driven home by Selvi Carlson, her boss at a Village Park music store where she works evenings as a file clerk. Her son Raymond is with friends that night and stays out late.

Around 7 o’clock Tuesday morning, Zylka and Fincutter arrive to open the village hall. Frieda Nack is discovered in the basement furnace room. Seven hours later, she is taken to McAlister Hospital in Golden Oaks, where she dies the morning of Friday, November 2. On November 10, a coroner’s inquest returns the verdict that she died of self-inflicted burns, bringing the investigation to a close. For many, however, it remains an unsolved mystery."

Alexis’s arm, which was propping her up, began to ache. She pushed herself into a sitting position and watched Louie’s beard lightly scratch the page. What an odd story. Alexis tapped the knuckle of her index finger against her front teeth. Seven hours.  Why the delay? She sighed and put the clipping aside. It was interesting, but what was she doing with it? Procrastinating, that was what she was doing with it.

 It was time to call Babs Kopfer for help. A widow in her sixties who used colorful, butterfly-shaped barrettes in her straight white hair, Babs was an old friend of Pearl’s who lived five blocks down. They had been neighbors for decades, and through her steadfast determination to have a fine garden despite the harsh winters and poor soil, Babs had become a go-to person for questions about gardening. She also ran the local gardening club. While she routinely forgot the names of anyone who had moved to Beach Grove within the past twenty years, no aspiring gardener forgot hers. She hadn’t failed to identify a flower in Alexis’s presence yet.

Babs said she was delighted to hear from Alexis and proposed a day outing to the theater. “We can talk shop throughout,” she proffered in her bright South Carolina accent. Alexis agreed. After she hung up the phone, Alexis reached for the binder to put it away. Then she paused and removed her hand from its cover. Maybe she would come back to it later. It couldn’t hurt to leave it out.

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  • Marie-Laure Neulat on Oct. 5, 2018, 7:18 a.m.

    I'm excited that you're bringing this project to life, and eager to read the book!

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