Rachel Howzell Hall had always been fascinated by the darkness of crime novels, and, as an English and American literature major at UC Santa Cruz, she'd wanted to pen her own. But she was too frightened by her lack of knowledge about police work to give it a try.
Then something came along that scared her more than any thriller could.
At 33, and two months pregnant with her first child, Hall was diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer. She survived and gave birth to a healthy daughter, Maya, now 10.
"After cancer, and knowing what real fear was like, I said, 'Screw this,'" remembered Hall in a telephone interview from the Windsor Hills, Calif., home she shares with her daughter and husband, David. She decided she would buy the Mercedes she'd vowed to own by the time she was 50 and also write her detective story.
"I wanted to do both before I left this world," she said, "and I wasn't guaranteed to be here when I was 50."
Today, the 1992 graduate of Merrill College is author of four books, including the 2014 Land of Shadows, a book Publisher's Weekly called an "exceptional crime novel."
Set against the backdrop of a racially charged Los Angeles, the protagonist of Land of Shadows is a feisty, smart, African American homicide detective named Elouise "Lou" Norton, who prowls a crimeridden part of Los Angeles known as "The Jungle" in search of a murderer who may be responsible for the deaths of two young black girls.
The Jungle is a place Hall knows well. She was raised there amid the nighttime serenade of gunfire, screams, and police helicopters. But Hall's working-class parents were determined she would have a better life, and her childhood was filled with books, piano lessons, and church.
"I kind of lived in two worlds," said Hall. One world was The Jungle and the other was the more privileged sphere of church and school friends who lived in an affluent neighborhood near her own.
It's a backstory she shares with her protagonist Elouise—that idea that success can have its roots in a bullet- riddled neighborhood, that good exists next to evil, and sometimes it's hard to see the difference at first glance.
"I can't say her books are autobiographical," said her former college roommate and longtime friend Alissa Gardenhire (Merrill '92, environmental studies), who got a doctorate in urban planning from Harvard. "But I think her novels reflect her own personality, and I think she is, like a lot of writers, a student of humanity. She's an observer of people."
As one of a few African American mystery writers, and with a black female detective for a main character, Hall said she makes it a point to be an observer—and also a tenacious researcher. Her novels are born out of lengthy interviews with law enforcement officers, and long sessions at mystery-writing conferences, while her time at UC Santa Cruz exposed her to a wide variety of viewpoints and literature.
"It awakened my creativity," the 44-year-old said of the campus.
Hall writes in longhand on yellow legal pads, snatching time before work as a science proposal writer for City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment facility, and in between her daughter's soccer practices.
Not too long ago, the final draft of her as-yet-unpublished novel Trail of Echoes was stolen from her car, then miraculously returned to her a day later.
"It was a visceral, gut thing," said Hall of the hours when she didn't know her manuscript's location.
But like all good writers, Hall promised, "that experience will somehow get incorporated into a future story."
Visit Hall's website for more information.