John Copenhaver Discusses his new McCarthy-Era Mystery, Hall of Mirrors

Set in post-World-War-II Washington D.C., during the McCarthy era and the Lavender Scare, John Copenhaver’s  Hall of Mirrors, is a fast-paced mystery that tells the story of a young lesbian couple, Judy Nightingale and Philippa Watson, whose passion for each other is matched only by their obsession with catching a serial killer.

The pressure Philippa feels to live a conformist life drives her to leave Judy and become engaged to a man. But the two are drawn back together when teenage girls start turning up murdered in suburban communities outside Washington. They suspect that their nemesis from Copenhaver’s previous book, The Savage Kind, is the killer, but are baffled by the resistance they meet when they bring their suspicions to the authorities. Their investigations unearth a cover-up that reaches from the bedecked halls of Washington high society all the way to the F.B.I.

Through Judy and Philippa’s relationship, and those of other diverse characters, Copenhaver highlights the risks and dangers—but also the communities—that characterized the lives of non-conformist people in the post-war era.

Carla Miriam Levy: Hall of Mirrors is set in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the height of the McCarthy era. What drew you to this time period?

John Copenhaver: During the McCarthy Era, the government-sanctioned discrimination against Blacks and queer people, from overt political figures grasping for power like Senator Joseph McCarthy to the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover, shaped a lot of the attitudes of the time, many of which still linger with us today. So, it struck me as the perfect backdrop to explore questions of identity through a mystery plot that shows the way that the private lives of people intersect with these powerful political forces.

The book has an intricate structure, with two interleaved timelines that draw closer and closer together and are only a month apart for much of the book until they finally meet up. How did you develop this structure for the narrative? What were some challenges of crafting the book this way?

Great question! I decided on this structure because, as a reader, I enjoy the narrative tension created by two timelines that we know will meet. I tell my students that at the beginning of a book, you need to give readers an arrow pointing “this way,” but you don’t have to tell them exactly where they’re headed; in this case, I gave my readers two arrows and suggested that there’s much to be realized at their point of intersection. On a character level, I wanted to be able to show Judy and Philippa, my protagonists from the first book in the trilogy, The Savage Kind, mature. Their love story, as well as Lionel and Roger’s, play an important role in the novel, and where their lives intersect is an important milestone in their journey to self-discovery.

How do you go about constructing a story packed with clues, red herrings, and surprise twists? Tell us a little about your process for developing a roller-coaster storyline.

The short answer: Outline carefully! The longer answer: I don’t start with the clues or the scenario; I begin with character arcs. Where do I want these characters to be in their development by the end of the book? Once I know that, I build the plot scene by scene to reveal character; then and only then, I start constructing the puzzle. I never want the puzzle to drive characterization; I always want characterization to determine the puzzle. In Hall of Mirrors, we have a corpse—presumably Roger’s—burnt beyond recognition, and it’s being labeled as suicide. My job as a puzzle maker is to offer that idea up and then, bit by bit, dismantle it. That’s when I start to figure out how to gradually offer clues that, if looked at the right way, offer up the truth.

The book touches on themes of identity, with two major characters who are mixed race, one who passes for white and one who does not. What drew you to create these characters and to write a story exploring the complexities of their lives? What were some challenges you faced in investigating and creating these characters?

The question of passing and not passing within the framework of the 1950s intrigues me because it was a time of extreme racism and homophobia in our country—not to say that things are fine now—but it was a time when these concepts were mainstreamed, and the government actively participated in discrimination. So, the question to pass or not to pass becomes complex. For reasons of safety and agency, it’s understandable why those who could pass at times did. It’s also morally complex because many folks can’t pass and must navigate the world openly; they do not have the privilege of passing. As for challenges, it’s always difficult to investigate any group that’s been marginalized because public record is often kept by the dominant forces of that culture; in other words, white cishet men. When I was researching, I was amazed at just how difficult it would be for a mixed-race gay couple like Lionel and Roger to live together in the 1950s, even in Washington, DC. To achieve what they achieved took cunning and, yes, deception, but it was righteous deception. Why, I wonder, did we (and still do) make it so hard for people to love each other in this country? As if love itself were a threat?

This is your second book featuring Judy and Philippa. What made you want to come back and spend more time with them? Did you know when you finished The Savage Kind that there was more of their story to tell?

As I was writing the first book in the trilogy, I knew I had more to say about Judy and Philippa and wanted to trace their development from teenagers to young women to finally grown women during a particularly difficult time to be an independent-minded woman, especially if you’re queer and, in Judy’s case, mixed race. I also had more to say about my villains, Adrian Bogdan and Moira Closs, who return in Hall of Mirrors, and the persistence of evil and how atrocities can occur in the name of state security. In my books, the personal and the political are deeply interwoven, so tracing those connections across a decade seemed interesting. The third and final book will be set in 1963, the year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the year of the March on Washington. Judy and Philippa will undergo another transformation as we enter another tumultuous decade.

Because Hall of Mirrors includes Judy’s point of view, we get a good look at what attracts Judy to Philippa, though not so much of the reverse. What do you think is the secret sauce that makes their love affair work?

In The Savage Kind, we get Philippa’s perspective and, in those pages, it’s clear that Philippa is attracted to Judy because she represents her truer impulses. On the surface, Philippa comes across as very typical of her time, but underneath, she yearns to have the freedom of thought and the directness of instinct that Judy has. On the other hand, Judy yearns for the stability that Philippa offers her. I based their relationship on the heroine and Byronic hero relationships in Gothic romances. Judy is dark and brooding and othered, and Philippa sees herself in that otherness. Very Catherine and Heathcliff. There’s a reason
Wuthering Heights is one of their favorite novels.

I’ve seen the series described as a “trilogy,” so I suppose that means there is still more to come of Judy and Phillippa’s adventures! Do you foresee writing other stories set in this time?

As I mentioned, I have a third novel planned for the trilogy taking the women into the 1960s, tentatively titled Goddess of Love. I’ve mapped out the story, which casts back to The Savage Kind and Judy’s twisted relationship with her birth mother.

What would you most like people to know about Hall of Mirrors, and to take away from it? 

First and foremost, I want readers to have a good time as the story takes twists and turns, and they get to know and understand my main characters more deeply. I hope it will inspire more awareness of the Lavender Scare and the complexities of that time and help us guard against ever returning to a time of such widespread discrimination.

John Copenhaver’s historical crime novel, Dodging and Burning, won the 2019 Macavity Award for Best First Mystery. His second novel, The Savage Kind, won the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for Best LGBTQ Mystery. He cohosts the House of Mystery Radio Show, is the six-time recipient of Artist Fellowships from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and for years, wrote a crime fiction review column for Lambda Literary called “Blacklight.”  John is a Larry Neal awardee, and his work has appeared in CrimeReads, Electric Lit, The Gay and Lesbian Review, PANK, Washington Independent Review of Books, and others. He teaches fiction writing and literature at Virginia Commonwealth University and is a faculty mentor in the University of Nebraska’s Low-Residency MFA program.

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