by John Swaine)
When the judges of a contest for first-time crime novelists awarded their prize to Cuts Through Bone, they hailed the book for its authenticity.
No one from the Private Eye Writers of America panel, however, deduced that there might be a good reason for its author’s believable voice —he was himself a convicted killer serving a sentence for murder.
“He’s not available. He’s in an institution,” Jade Reed, his cousin, told an interested publisher that called to follow up on his win.
“Will he be out soon?” came the reply. After a pause, Ms Reed said: “Well, he’s there indefinitely.” Alaric Hunt, 44, has lived more than half his life in prison after being convicted of killing Joyce Austin, a 23-year-old graduate student, in Clemson, South Carolina, 1988. He is now in a maximum-security facility 180 miles from the crime scene in Bishopville.
Ms Austin died of smoke inhalation from a fire started by Hunt’s brother, Jason, with a can of petrol and a match to distract emergency services while the two of them robbed a nearby jewellery shop.
The brothers were arrested six weeks later.
They were sentenced to life with no parole for at least 30 years.
Hunt, who works in the prison library, discovered authors such as Ernest Hemingway while locked up. He came upon the idea of writing his own novel after seeing an advertisement for the prize three years ago.
He wrote Cuts Through Bone in nine months in sessions between his prison duties. The story centres on the murder of a woman whose boyfriend, a military veteran, is wrongfully accused of the crime.
Clayton Guthrie, a middle-aged detective, teams up with Rachel Vasquez, the inquisitive teenage daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, to get to the bottom of the case.
The book is set in New York, where Hunt has never been. He said he had pieced together knowledge of the city from watching episodes of Law and Order, a popular American detective drama series set there.
Unlike some other American states, South Carolina has no law barring prisoners to profit from such work. Still, Hunt’s publishers, Minotaur, are keen to stress that his book is not based on his own offence. “He’s not writing a memoir of the crimes and trying to make money off that,” a spokesman told the newspaper.
However, Frances Austin, the mother of the Hunt brothers’ victim, told the New York Times that she was astonished to learn he had written the book. “He caused my daughter’s death, and now he’s writing a book about it,” she said. “I can’t believe this.” The booked received mixed reviews. “Sometimes, a crime novel grabs you on the first page with its plot. Sometimes, it’s the writing. Rarely is it the author’s background. But Alaric Hunt hits the trifecta in his debut,” wrote the critic for the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia.
However, Publishers Weekly said: “Overblown prose (’dawn broke, like an egg yolk bleeding yellow into a dark pan’) doesn’t help an unremarkable plot.” Hunt told The New York Times:“What haunts me is not seeing beyond what I wanted and casually risking others,” Hunt told the newspaper. “That’s the act that defines me — something I didn’t do, but failed to do: consider. I killed Joyce Austin, and I killed my brother and myself. There’s a hole there that can’t ever fill up.”
He hopes to earn parole when he is eligible, in five years. “I’m afraid to choke on wistfulness,” he said. “That has been the fate of many a prisoner. I pass them each day, still shuffling and muttering with their hands full of hope.”