by Sarah Klein
In 1968, all six members of the Robison family — mother and father, three teenage boys and a young daughter — were found brutally murdered in their northern Michigan cabin. Each was shot with a rifle except the 8-year-old girl, who was bludgeoned to death. The bodies lay decomposing for nearly a month before they were discovered. It remains one of Michigan’s most chilling mass murder cases, and it was never solved.
Around the same time, serial killer John Norman Collins was terrorizing southeast Michigan. He raped, beat, strangled, mutilated and murdered women aged from 13 to 23, discarding their bodies around the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area. When finally apprehended, Collins was implicated in 15 murders. Details of his grisly killing spree are chronicled in Edward Keyes’ book The Michigan Murders; Collins remains incarcerated.
The two unrelated cases touched a nerve with Michigan native and novelist Judith Guest, who bases her latest novel, The Tarnished Eye, on the circumstances of the murders.
Guest, who attended high school in Royal Oak, is the author of the 1976 novel Ordinary People, which became a major motion picture (and Robert Redford’s directing debut) and won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1980.
Guest has written several novels since then. The Tarnished Eye marks her first murder mystery, and she provides a seamless narrative flow and characters that are remarkably well-developed, from major players to minor characters making brief cameos.
The author took the basic facts surrounding the Robison and Collins cases and created a fictive scenario that delves deeply into family crises, infidelity, tragedy and, ultimately, the issue of justice for the slain.
In Guest’s story, Sheriff Hugh DeWitt is a sharp-witted small-town cop, struggling with the recent death of his son to SIDS. His grief is interrupted when he lands the case of a lifetime: His normally sleepy northern Michigan town is thrown into chaos when a family is found slaughtered.
Lacking the technology to deal with the forensic investigation, DeWitt turns to an old friend and detective from Ann Arbor. Help is not available, as every cop in town is focused on the murders of a serial killer targeting young University of Michigan female students (the author’s fictional version of the Collins case).
Guest began work on the novel five years ago, inspired in part after reading The Michigan Murders. In a strangely coincidental and eerie twist, investigators in the Robison family slaying last year stumbled across long-lost evidence and submitted it for DNA testing, in the hopes of finally closing the case. Guest sold her manuscript in March 2003; the new development in the Robison case was announced just two months later.
“It was very, very weird,” says Guest from her home in Minneapolis, where she spends half her year, the other half spent in a Northern Michigan cottage.
Guest, 67, remembers the Robison case when it first occurred.
“I remember reading about them,” she says, “and the U-M murders. I’m very interested in people’s motivations, why they do the things they do, why go to such extremes as if that’s the only solution to their problem. Those two crimes laid awake in my mind for a long time, and, about five years ago, I decided to write about them, but write a novel.”
“I don’t know why I actually put them together,” she says of the unrelated cases. “They were two sort of sensational crimes that just stuck with me.”
Guest was so pleased with her character DeWitt that she is already writing another novel featuring the worrisome and eagle-eyed sheriff.
“I’m having fun with it,” the bubbly Guest says. She’s quick to add, “I suffer more than I have fun. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
Originally, Guest wanted to be a teacher, and received her BA in education from the University of Michigan. She says she’d written as a hobby since childhood, but didn’t consider writing as a profession until the early 1970s.
“I decided if I was going to be serious about this, I’d better finish something, since I’d never finished anything,” she says with a laugh. Ordinary People was her first finished project.
Given the huge success of the novel, which is now required reading for some high school and college classes, Guest naturally feared a sophomore slump.
“It took me a long time to get over that,” she says. “It’s really easy to buy into the hype, ‘Oh, I wrote this magnificent book, and now I have to write another magnificent book.’ It takes a while to sort that stuff out … and realize that all you have to do is just write another book.”
Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.