In the Maryland author Sarah Pekkanen's newest novel, which comes out Tuesday, a white police officer fatally shoots a 15-year-old Latino boy, claiming that the teen had drawn a gun.
But no weapon is found. The officer is indicted on charges of involuntary manslaughter. The boy's mother holds a news conference and laments, "Too many of our boys have been killed because of the color of their skin." Picketers demand "Justice for Jose."
The 47-year-old Pekkanen, a former features writer for The Baltimore Sun, is finding herself in the not entirely comfortable position of having written what might be the most timely novel being published this spring in America.
Perhaps somewhat incongruously, the same book is being promoted in some quarters as escapist summer beach fare.
"Things You Won't Say made US Weekly's Buzzzz-O-Meter for the June issue ("Today" show co-host Hoda Kotb is said to be a fan). Glamour magazine declares it to be "a standout among standouts." And the online media network PopSugar included it in the list of the 26 "hottest books you'll want to read this summer."
Pekkanen's sixth novel raises questions about race, police culture and the overwhelming stresses that officers face on the job. These thorny social issues are filtered through the viewpoints of three women: the officer's wife, her sister and his former girlfriend.
"What all six of my novels have in common," the 47-year-old author says during a chat in her Chevy Chase home, "is that they're about the important relationships in a woman's life. Whenever we see a politician who has done something wrong up on a stage, his spouse is always standing quietly next to him. I think about the impact on the spouse and the kids, the people we don't see."
It's that juxtaposition that makes Pekkanen so interesting. She's part hard-nosed investigative journalist — her reporting in the mid-1990s launched a Justice Department probe against a Michigan congresswoman — part cultural chronicler and part savvy manager of her own success. She's also the work-at-home mother of three sons ages 15, 13 and 6.
Pekkanen never has been daunted by the difficulties that face first-time authors hoping to get their books noticed.
As a 10-year-old, she and a friend sent a manuscript they'd co-written called "Miscellaneous Tales and Poems" to a handful of top New York publishers. The book was written on Raggedy Ann stationery and tied together with red ribbon. When "Tales" attracted no bidders, Pekkanen wrote a "sternly worded" rebuke to those same publishers, saying she expected a response within the week.
"One of them wrote me a really nice letter back," she recalls. "The editor said, 'Keep at it. You'll be published some day.'"
That day arrived in 2010. Pekkanen knew that the odds of a book getting any industry attention at all are stacked against a new author, so she spent the entire advance for "The Opposite of Me" on marketing. Her efforts caught the eye of superstar author Jennifer Weiner, who promoted Pekkanen's novel and helped it become an overnight best-seller. Pekkanen says Weiner's intervention raised the book's ranking on Amazon.com from No. 280,000 to No. 62.
Pekkanen, who grew up in Bethesda, has long, wavy brown hair and often wears ruffly peasant blouses that she tucks into trim jeans. The author resembles one of her heroines, who tend to be the effortlessly pretty, treat-serving, fun moms that 7-year-old girls adopt as role models.
"Sarah is the sweetest, most pleasant person you'll ever meet, but she's also fearless," says David Grann, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine and Pekkanen's former boss.
In the 1990s, both worked for The Hill, which was then a free weekly Washington newspaper. Pekkanen began hearing disturbing rumors that a Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins, a Michigan Democrat, had misused campaign funds and scholarship money intended for poor children.
It was Pekkanen, then in her 20s, not reporters for The Washington Post or The New York Times, who broke a series of stories that resulted in investigations by the House Ethics Committee and Justice Department in 1996.
The ethics investigation was dropped when Collins was defeated for re-election, according to the Ethics Committee finding posted online. Pekkanen says she was interviewed about the congresswoman by the FBI. But since she couldn't identify her sources, who had spoken to her on condition of anonymity, that investigation went nowhere. (Collins denied any wrongdoing.)
"Back then, I expected her to go on to become a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter," Grann says, "though I'm not surprised that she became a novelist. She's an incredibly creative person. The thing about Sarah is that she can get anybody to talk. She's able to pick up on currents that are present long before they surface and become news stories."
Of course, the tension in America between urban police officers and young men of color isn't exactly new. It's not unexpected that an author would concoct a fictitious clash between members of these two groups and put it at the center of her story. But Pekkanen happened to write her novel just before the nation became galvanized by real-life video footage of people shooting and hurling bricks at one another.
It's that accident of timing that makes her uneasy. She says she'd be horrified if her readers thought she was exploiting real-life tragedies for her personal gain.
Pekkanen knows nonetheless that the first question she'll be asked at book signings and in interviews is about the similarities between her plot and the recent deaths of Freddie Gray, who died on April 19 of injuries suffered while in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department, and Michael Brown, who was fatally shot on Aug. 9, 2014 by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
"My book wasn't inspired by or in response to any specific" incident, she says. "I wouldn't want anyone to think that this work of fiction has any bearing on my views about real-life cases."
She's quick to point out that "Things You Won't Say" was finished nearly a full year before Gray died and three months before Brown was shot. (The manuscript was with her publisher when riots broke out in Missouri, and Pekkanen asked her production editor to insert a brief reference to Ferguson.)
But Pekkanen also knows that many readers will examine the news through the prism of her novel. In the book, the officer's wife comes to the conclusion that Jose's shooting can't be reduced to a simple formula of innocence or guilt.
"The issues I tried to explore are troubling and complex," Pekkanen says."I wanted to convey that Jose's death was nobody's fault and everybody's fault. I'm glad that the book is out there now if it gets people thinking about these really complicated and important problems."
Pekkanen made sure that an early copy of "Things You Won't Say" was sent to former Baltimore Officer Lavon'De Alston. In 1998, when Pekkanen was working at The Sun, Alston was racing to help a fellow officer when her cruiser was involved in a collision with a police van. The crash took the life of Alston's close friend, Officer Harold J. Carey.
Pekkanen wrote about Alston's feelings of guilt and anguish. She wrote about how the officer struggled to reconcile her dream of helping people with the knowledge that she had — however unintentionally — been involved in the death of a dear friend.
When that article ran, Alston wondered how Pekkanen, a civilian, could capture so accurately the stresses that police officers and their families face every day. When Alston read "Things You Won't Say," she says, she was struck not just by Pekkanen's insight but also by her fair-mindedness.
"What Sarah has written is absolutely real," Alston says.
"She gets it from both sides, from the police officer's side and from the victim's family side. No matter what the outcome is, everybody suffers. You can't bring the person back who died, and you can't heal the officer's mental scars.
"I just wish that people from all walks of life would read this book."