Veteran crime reporter turned novelist Edna Buchanan brought a standing room only crowd to Books & Books in Coral Gables on Tuesday, Nov. 8, when she launched her new book, A Dark and Lonely Place.
It is the 18th book written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and her 15th work of fiction, although it is partially based on fact. The book, an ambitious effort that took her more than two years to complete, interweaves the exploits of real life criminal legends John Ashley and Laura Upthegrove from a century ago with their fictional descendants in the present day. They are star-crossed lovers who seemed destined to repeat history although today’s John Ashley is a Miami homicide sergeant and his modern Laura is a stunning model.
“This is the book I’ve wanted to write for more than half of my life,” Buchanan told her audience. “The dark story whispered down generations about notorious outlaw John Ashley and his sweetheart, Laura, haunted my dreams, stirred my soul, from the moment I first heard their names. I’ve always loved news and history.”
Buchanan explained that she first had run across stories about John Ashley when she worked as a reporter at the Miami Beach Sun, fascinated by the couple’s exploits as related in the yellowing pages of the newspaper’s “morgue” or archive of past editions.
Buchanan told of how Ashley, accused of murder and sentenced to hang, protested his innocence and went on the run with his sweetheart, Laura, in a crime spree that was longer and deadlier than that of Bonnie and Clyde a decade later. John and Laura’s outlaw adventures included prison breaks, bootlegging, bank robberies and piracy on the high seas.
Then she discovered accounts stating that the original story of Ashley’s death in a gunfight wasn’t true — and that some things never change.
“John, his nephew and two friends peacefully surrendered to St. Lucie and Palm Beach deputies who handcuffed and then executed them,” Buchanan said. “There’d been a vendetta by the Palm Beach County Sheriff who had been trying to stop the gang for more than a decade and they finally gave up trying to take them in because every time they did they would escape from jail and be back out on the loose again. You had suspicious deaths in police custody…how shocking.”
Buchanan said that she later found an old photo of Ashley while working at the Miami Herald and began to wonder how he and Laura might fare in modern day South Florida. She wondered how powerful the past is, and whether anyone can truly change their destiny. That led her to write a book, which explored those very questions.
She related stories of Miami’s violent history to her audience of long-time fans and new admirers, evoking laughter as well as gasps, and mentioning that as a crime reporter she once covered 630 murders in one year.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same,” Buchanan said. “Miami has always been the last stop for sun-seeking drifters and people on the run from trouble. I think some of them are here tonight.”
Her novel, A Dark and Lonely Place, is published in hardcover by Simon & Schuster.