Robert Dugoni recreates “The Trial of the Century” in his first historical thriller, A Killing on the Hill


Robert Dugoni is well-known as an author of contemporary thrillers and mysteries, including the Tracy Crosswhite, Charles Jenkins, and David Sloane series, with over two dozen books published, millions of copies sold, and legions of fans. But his new novel, A Killing on the Hill, is his first foray into the world of historical thrillers, and he found his way there the same way so many historical novelists do: he stumbled across a true story that grabbed his imagination and wouldn’t let go.

His wife’s grandmother once told Dugoni that “life is just the blink of an eye,” and he found one of those “blinks” in an old scrapbook of newspaper articles about a scandalous trial involving a famous mobster, a dead prize fighter, and hard-nosed detectives and prosecutors. That scrapbook served as the inspiration for A Killing on the Hill, set in 1933 Seattle, a fast-paced, hard-hitting novel of corruption, vice, and murder during the Great Depression and a trial that captivates the city of Seattle and has newspapers scrambling to beat each other to the latest scoop.

Dugoni originally planned to tell the story from the point of view of a prosecuting attorney until a young, inexperienced reporter named William “Shoe” Shumacher appeared on the scene, and the story took a different direction. Shoe is a fictional character, but Dugoni drew on his own experiences to put himself in the mindset. He explains, “At 21 years of age I was working for the Los Angeles Times in LA. I didn’t know a soul and I was young and naïve. I was away from my family and my friends. I recall feeling out of my league often and being very lonely at times. I missed my family. I drew on that experience creating Shoe.”

When asked how unfolding the mystery from a young reporter’s point of view changed the story and the experience for the reader, Dugoni reflects, “Shoe is naïve, but also honest. He provides the reader with an unbiased view of what is happening, but his naivete adds tension to the story because the reader begins to suspect, as does Shoe, that not everything is as it seems, and that people may be taking advantage of him. It makes Shoe empathetic. The reader wants to see him succeed.”

author photo by Douglas Sonders

The challenge for many historical novelists lies in creating characters that resonate with modern readers while still being authentic to the time period. “I don’t think people have changed all that much,” Dugoni says. “When I travel to other countries, I notice that also. People genuinely want to be treated with respect. They want the opportunity for a good job to take care of their family—put a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and food on the table. We’re not that different. We want to find someone to spend our lives with and share experiences. I believe it is a universal condition.”

The challenge of creating historical characters takes on another layer when the characters are based on real people. “I spent a lot of time with the newspaper and the magazine articles. My wife’s family knew of the attorneys and could help as well. At the same time, the lack of direct information about specific people left me room to create, based on the circumstances. It’s one of the reasons I didn’t use all of the people’s real names. I felt that gave me great license to create the character beyond what I knew about them.”

In navigating the delicate balance between fact and imagination, Dugoni “really tried to stay true to fact to the extent I could. The Seattle Times helped me with maps and business establishments. Many of the establishments remain, so I went there and went inside, looked around. Those establishments that were gone, I looked for photographs. I also read newspapers to find out what else was going on in Seattle besides the trial—what was occupying people’s minds.” Dugoni also noted that “the setting in historical novels becomes a character in the book, so the challenge is making it as authentic as possible.”

Circling back to the “blink” that inspired this story, I asked Dugoni what role historical novels can play in drawing attention to more blinks and what advice he would offer to a writer who has discovered a blink of their own and is embarking on the journey of turning it into a novel. “I think the question is well stated. This ‘trial of the century’ was just a brief moment in Seattle’s history and an even briefer moment in world history. Realizing this can provide great perspective that we are not the center of the universe, and our lives and accomplishments are not that important. What is important are the relationships we make and the people we love and who love us. For those who find a ‘blink’ in their own attic, I would say focus on the people who lived through that blink and ask yourself how that moment impacted those people and their lives.”

Lovers of historical fiction know that the genre provides valuable insights into the human experience across different time periods. When it comes to what he hopes readers will learn or take away from this story, Dugoni says, That the basic human desire to live a purposeful life exists no matter the time period or the country. What impacts that life experience are the world events going on at that time, like the Great Depression, World War I, and World War II. My hope is that readers will take away from this story that even in the worst of times, humans have found a way to survive and to thrive.”


About the contributor: Jenny Quinlan, aka Jenny Q, is the chair of the Historical Novel Society North America Conference. As an independent editor, book coach, and founder of Historical Editorial, she has helped hundreds of historical fiction authors achieve their publishing goals. She lives in the heart of the historic Old Dominion of Virginia with her family and a spoiled-rotten German Shepherd.




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