Many of us have read an odd little story in a newspaper's inside pages and thought, "Someone ought to write a book about that."
Christopher Goffard did.
The result is You Will See Fire: A Search for Justice in Kenya, a deeply researched and gripping book about the amazing life and mysterious death of an American priest, Father John Kaiser. Although it's nonfiction, the book reads like a well-constructed, suspenseful crime novel. Goffard's debut book was a noir novel titled Snitch Jacket, a finalist for the Edgar Award for best first novel in 2007, and, he says, he structured You Will See Fire like a mystery.
Its twin narratives about Kaiser and Charles Gathenji, a Kenyan lawyer who was his friend, burrow into the explanation for the devout and courageous priest's earthly end in a ditch, most of his head blown away by his own shotgun.
Kaiser's bipolar disorder points to the possibility of suicide, but his contentious relationships with politicians in the corrupt and violent administration of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi suggest murder. Investigations by Gathenji, the FBI and Goffard himself gradually uncover the story.
Goffard really did discover the book's subject in a brief wire service story headlined Priest's death ruled homicide. He saw it in 2007, seven years after Kaiser, whom he had never heard of before, died. But he was intrigued by the "bare bones" of the story of the Roman Catholic missionary, a former paratrooper from Minnesota who devoted his life to building churches and schools in tiny African villages.
Goffard was formerly a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), where he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize for a series he wrote called The $40 Lawyer. He is now a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. "The local hook was that the priest's brother, Francis, lived in California," Goffard says.
The little wire story led to "the first big project I did for the paper." He spent a year working on it, traveling to Kenya for several weeks and generating "boxes and boxes" of research. "I was very lucky; it's still possible to do this here," he says of his editors' support. The result was a three-part series of about 15,000 words that was published in 2009.
But he had plenty of material that hadn't made it into the newspaper story: "I could have gotten a Ph.D. — the book has 60 pages of footnotes." He also continued to gather material, including letters Kaiser had written, results of an FBI probe and an in-depth interview with Gathenji while the lawyer was visiting the United States. "This wouldn't have been a book without Gathenji," he says.
He was also driven by his own response to Kaiser. "As a journalist, you deal all the time with rotten people and villains," he says. "It's very hard for a journalist to grapple with a good and decent person. We expect hidden motives and agendas. We fear being someone's shill.
"After dealing with deviants and criminals, I was interested in delving into the nature of human goodness."
Goffard sees Kaiser's bipolar disorder as "a condition that informed his courage, his sense of justice, his fearlessness. I read about Lincoln and Churchill suffering from depression, and I think it gave them insight into human suffering they couldn't have had otherwise."
Kaiser, he says, was a devout Catholic but also "someone who was never really comfortable with authority. People this courageous, this fearless, can be very uncomfortable to be around, especially if you're in a dangerous situation and you feel prudence is the best course." As Goffard describes in the book, Kaiser sometimes abandoned prudence when defending or protecting his flock, despite the risk to himself. "All the contradictions and paradoxes of the man were what fascinated me."
You Will See Fire was published in December; in November, another book by Goffard, A Nightmare Made Real, became the first publication of the Los Angeles Times' new ebook venture. (About a dozen more books are planned for the next year.)
Like You Will See Fire, A Nightmare Made Real is an expansion of a series Goffard wrote for the newspaper, but this one was about a crime closer to home. Louis Gonzalez III, a banker from Las Vegas, came to Simi Valley, Calif., to pick up his young son and was accused by his ex-girlfriend, the boy's mother, of rape and torture — an accusation that, despite evidence she had been brutally attacked, was proven false.
"I let it unfold in real time," Goffard says. He was struck by the story because Gonzalez received from the judge a rare ruling of factual innocence. "That says not just that they couldn't prove he did it, but that he actually didn't do it. I thought, that's something to write about."
The story was chosen for ebook publication, he says, because it "got a huge reader response. It was among the top stories of the year; I got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of emails." Most were sympathetic to Gonzalez, he says, and wanted to know why the woman had falsely accused him.
Once again, Goffard was writing about a mystery. "Why did she do it? Nobody knows."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.