GALESBURG – Kathleen Barber’s novel, “Are You Sleeping” is set in fictional Elm Park, Ill., which bears a strong resemblance to her hometown of Galesburg. And it is about a hit podcast that reopens a murder case and threatens to unravel the life of the victim’s daughter.
I was eager to read the novel because I, too, grew up in Galesburg and, interestingly enough, produced a true-crime podcast that rose toNo. 2 on the iTunes charts this year.
Needless to say, the book spoke to me.
Barber is a delightful writer who has produced a taut thriller that will leave you wondering the identity of the killer.
My prediction: the book is destined for the New York Times best seller list.
The book revolved around the murder of Elm Park College Professor Chuck Buhrman. (The fictional liberal arts college seems an awful lot like Galesburg’s Knox College.)
When I asked Barber about the apparent similarities between our hometown and the setting of the book she said, “You write about what you know. Many things in the book don’t reflect my experiences. For example, I have a wonderful mother. But I found it helpful to base the town on a place I knew.”
And for a Galesburg native many of the places were easy to discern. For example, the hoity toity people living in McMansions on a nearby lake reminded me of a few swells I know residing near Galesburg’s Lake Rice. Oh, and the Last Call tavern sounds an awful lot like the Cherry Street Restaurant and Bar in the ‘Burg.
But for me the most intriguing figure was Poppy Parnell the journalist who produced a podcast investigating Professor Buhrman’s murder. She becomes convinced that Warren Cave, the neighbor convicted in the murder, is innocent.
And Parnell hunts down the various parties in the case to find out the truth. Parnell is not only one of the book’s most interesting characters, she is also its most annoying.
I see a bit of Parnell in myself.
As the protagonist, Josie, and her twin Lanie mourn the unexpected death of their mother. Parnell peppers them with questions not only on the phone and on their front porches -- but at their mother’s visitation.
I feel for Parnell. While creating the podcast “Suspect Convictions” with the NPR affiliate WVIK, I too, investigated a murder. My case revolved around the death of a 9-year-old Rock Island girl named Jennifer Lewis, who died in 1990.
The 17th and final episode of this season of Suspect Convictions comes out this month. It has been downloaded more than 2.5 million times.
While gathering information for this podcast, I knocked on many doors. Sometimes I was welcome and sometimes not. But you never know unless you knock.
I’m sure I asked many annoying questions, just like the book’s Polly Parnell. Does that bother me? Nope. That’s what good reporters do.
Polly Parnell is vindicated at the end. I hope I am as well.
“Suspect Convictions can be downloaded for free on iTunes and most other podcasting platforms. And “Are You Sleeping” can be preordered on Amazon now and will be available in bookstores Aug. 1.
• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist. He works asa freelance reporter in the Springfield area and produces the podcast Suspect Convictions. He can be reached at ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.