Crime writers find drama, humanity (and pulp) in New Hampshire murder case
Rebecca Lavoie and Kevin Flynn
Kenneth Carpenter, 53, of Lempster, N.H., is transported to Newport District Court Friday, March 4, 2005, in Newport, N.H., where he was arraigned for the murder of Edith "Pen" Meyer, 55, a Goshen woman who was reported missing on Feb. 23. (AP Photo/The Eagle Times, Don Clark)
We won’t go so far as to label Kevin Flynn and Rebecca Lavoie’s fresh-squeezed true crime book pulp-free. From its Peeping-Tom’s-view cover to the way it portions out its juicy revelations, Notes on a Killing certainly won’t disappoint devotees of its genre. But among the surprises between its covers – and there are plenty, especially if you don’t know or remember the story of Edith “Pen” Meyer’s murder – are the richly developed characters and, dare we say, artful passages of writing.
“We try awfully hard to bring something to our books that’s more than just good guy or bad guy,” said Flynn, a well-known New Hampshire journalist and author of three previous true crime books. “Nobody wears a white hat or a black hat in our books . . . . It’s not about the fingerprints, it’s about the people.”
Notes on a Killing, which hits bookstores next week, tells the story of Kenneth Carpenter’s obsessive affair with Sandy Merritt and the woman who lost her life by daring to come between them: Edith “Pen” Meyer. Set in the quiet town of Goshen, the murder mystery takes readers through the twists and turns of a complex police investigation and into the mind of a desperate killer.
Flynn, who covered the 2005 murder while working as a reporter for WMUR, said it was Carpenter’s frightening persona that ignited his interest in writing the book. One night over drinks at the Barley House, he and Lavoie, his wife as well as co-author, asked former assistant attorney general Kristin Wilson which of the many cases she’d prosecuted had the biggest impact on her.
Wilson, who had been involved with such high-profile trials as Sheila LaBarre’s and John Brooks’s, didn’t hesitate: “She said that she was the most scared of Kenneth Carpenter,” Flynn said.
The book captures Carpenter’s controlling, off-kilter personality and its disastrous effects on those who entered his life – many of them from the AA meetings where he held court. “To men and women who’d hit rock bottom, who were admitting for the first time in their lives that they were powerless to control themselves, Ken Carpenter was a commanding figure,” the couple writes. “People listened to him, especially women.”
But if the plot hangs on Carpenter and his maniacal scheming, the book gets its pulse from Meyer, a graceful, independent woman who had found her stride late in life and freely shared her strength and joie de vivre with the downtrodden in the same way that Carpenter preyed upon them.
“She was, simply, talented at people, and related to almost everyone; especially those she sensed needed more help than they knew how to ask for,” the couple writes.
It was Meyer, affectionately known to friends and family as Pen (a nickname derived from her birth date on July 4), who drew Lavoie most strongly to the story. She admired her free-spirited nature and bravery and could easily imagine how she found herself in the middle of a dangerous relationship.
“I don’t think it’s an unusual circumstance to be painted as the enemy of a relationship,” said Lavoie, a freelance writer and producer for New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth.
“The idea of how horribly that kind of story can turn out was fascinating to me.”
“Pen just seemed like such a rich, interesting character, who was in a way revered, almost saintly to some people,” Flynn added. “Here was somebody who was 100 percent victim, who did not deserve to be in the position she was in.”
Meyer, a 55-year-old weaver and fiber artist, met Sandy Merritt at an AA meeting and took the troubled woman under her wing. She did not interfere when she learned that Merritt was dating Carpenter, a married man.
But she began to worry about her friend when she learned of his deceptions and ploys to control her. She was instrumental in getting Merritt to break up with Carpenter and accompanied her to court when she sought a restraining order against him. After that, Carpenter’s behavior became increasingly hostile and bizarre, and Meyer seemed to be the target of much of his rage. On February 23, 2005, she disappeared.
Employing his extensive reporting experience, Flynn maps out the circumstances that led to that fateful day and the arduous investigative work that followed. Lavoie fleshes out the cast of characters, which include lead investigator Russ Lamson, Carpenter’s long-suffering wife Cynthia Harvey, the polished prosecutor Wilson and Senior Assistant Attorney General Will Delker, her professorial counterpart.
“Kevin has this amazing ability to organize. He’ll comb through thousands of pages of documents,” said Lavoie, who has co-written three of Flynn’s four true crime books. “My specialty is character development. . . . If you can’t read one of our books and feel like you know somebody like who it is you’re reading about, you won’t care about what they did or what happened to them or the way things unraveled.”
The only thing the couple fights about, they said, is how to begin the book. “And I always win,” Lavoie joked.
Their formula seems to work. The couple’s previous books have sold in the tens of thousands and turned up on true crime shelves all over the world. They’re also getting attention from big names in the genre – including revered crime writer Megan Abbott, who called them recently to talk about the book. “We thought it was a prank,” Flynn said.
For Lavoie, the affirmation has helped her shed a bit of uncertainty about the books. She remembers chatting with writer Anna Quindlen after an NHPR-sponsored event last year and telling her rather sheepishly that she wrote true crime books. “She said, ‘Oh, even those of us with prizes, we read the same stuff as everybody else,’ ” Lavoie recalled.