Late For His Own Funeral

By Elaine Viets

I can’t wait to tell you about my new mystery. “Late for His Own Funeral,” my latest Angela Richman, Death Investigator.
The idea came from a Los Angeles Times story that’s stuck in my mind for almost twenty-five years. Back in 1998, an LA coroner’s official told a woman that her husband was dead. I’ve changed the couple’s names to Harriet and Michael Brown.
The news of her husband’s death dropped poor Harriet into a nightmare. Michael Brown was Princeton-educated and a high-ranking political advisor. Yet the coroner said he’d died in police custody from an abscess caused by dirty needles. Harriet demanded to see her husband’s body. The official said no – the body was being autopsied. The wife refused to believe that Michael was shooting heroin. The police confirmed the dead man’s fingerprints as her husband’s. The dead man was also carrying Michael’s driver’s license.
Harriet said her husband’s driver’s license had been reported lost. The coroner’s investigator fed her a hunk of baloney. He “suggested that she was feeling anger and denial,” and that was normal.
Besides, the Browns had been going through a tough time, and Harriet knew her husband was depressed. Michael had moved out of the family home, and was staying with a relative. Michael had walked out of the relative’s home, crying, and the family hadn’t seen him for a few days. Harriet caved and planned Michael’s funeral.
The morning of the funeral, Michael was walking to his sister’s house when she drove by. Her car swerved to a stop and she screamed, “You’re supposed to be dead.”
The funeral was canceled. The real dead man was a drug addict who’d been carrying Michael’s missing driver’s license.
Turns out the police used Michael’s missing driver’s license as a basis to identify the dead man. There were many other snafus, but the first rule of body identification is: never, ever identify a body by a driver’s license.
That story sparked my new death investigator mystery, “Late for His Own Funeral.”
Here’s the story: Sterling Chaney is a rich and respected resident of Chouteau Forest, Missouri, home of the one percent. When his flashy sports car crashes at high speed, there isn’t enough of the driver left “to spread on a cracker,” in the inelegant words of the medical examiner.
Angela is at the funeral with the new widow, Camilla. The casket Sterling wanted causes quite a shock. Angela said:

Camilla, his widow, had given her husband what’s called the “Golden Send-Off” – she’d buried him like a rock star in a stunning Promethan casket. Sterling’s remains rested on plush velvet. The casket’s exterior was actually solid bronze, hand-polished to a mirror finish. It shone like gold.
Michael Jackson, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin all went to their reward in a Promethan casket. And now, Sterling Chaney. His casket, covered in roses like a Derby winner, looked incredibly gaudy in the austere Episcopalian church in Chouteau Forest, the largest town in Chouteau County.
I could hear the shocked murmurs and appalled whispers as the funeral home attendants rolled the garish casket up the aisle. The churchgoers would be even more shocked if they knew it cost thirty thousand dollars. In the pew behind us, a sturdy black-clad matron gasped, “Good heavens!”

But the service would soon have a bigger shock.
The funeral was interrupted by an unexpected guest – Sterling Chaney. Yep, he’s back, alive and well and drunk as a skunk, trying to take selfies with his coffin in the church.
Angela works for the county medical examiner’s office. She’s in charge of the body at the scene of murders, suicides, and unexplained deaths. Sloppy work by the medical examiner and the police created this mix-up. Angela is relieved the mess wasn’t her case.
After his dramatic entrance, Sterling Chaney, the man who was late for his own funeral, is all over the news. Sterling loves the spotlight, until a smart reporter reveals he earned his fortune by exploiting women who worked for him in a shady business. Sterling is disgraced and shunned by Chouteau society.
Then there’s another fatal crash.
This time, Death Investigator Angela Richman has to confirm that Sterling is really dead, then find out who killed him and why. Did the man who was late for his own funeral die twice?

Writers, do you use news stories for inspiration?

“Late for His Own Funeral” will be published by Severn House July 5. Pre-order your copy now from your favorite bookstore. The hardcover and ebook are available from Amazon:
and Barnes and Noble:
Check the ebook price. It may be cheaper at one retailer.


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About Elaine Viets

Elaine Viets has written 30 mysteries in four series, including 15 Dead-End Job mysteries. BRAIN STORM, her first Angela Richman, Death Investigator mystery, is published as a trade paperback, e-book, and audio book.

36 thoughts on “Late For His Own Funeral

  1. Elaine, thanks for the news accounts and for the sneak peak at your own forthcoming worthy story. It sounds fascinating.

    I am always looking for inspiration from news stories. Truth is stranger than fiction.

    Hope you’re having a great week, Elaine. Good luck with Late for His Own Funeral!

  2. Looks like a great book, Elaine.

    I was looking for a place with cartel action in Mexico (not hard to find, but needed the geography) and discovered an article saying the cartel was kidnapping American engineers to build them private cell phone networks. And Dangerous Connections (one of my Blackthornes) was born.

  3. Elaine,

    We both find literary inspiration from the news. People constantly amaze me from both ends of the bell curve, with feats of genius and idiocy I could never make up.

    Your latest sounds like a winner!

  4. Oh yes, news is filled with story ideas. I have a small collection of short stories I want to write based on news tidbits I’ve read from different papers, historical and recent. They just all seemed to come together for me with a theme and a likely title for the collection. Story ideas from news grab me because I want to deliver justice, even if it doesn’t happen in real life.

    Not just news. Research often spawns many additional ideas. I can be reading the records of the War of the Rebellion and see what they mentioned as an obscure tidbit of information and it just sparks a whole story idea.

  5. I saw the headline and thought, “I know someone who read their own obituary.” Then I saw that you wrote the piece. This looks like a winner, I can’t wait.

    Considering this tomb of the family patriarch is a short drive away, big bucks funerals are always interesting.

    $30,000 caskets are one of the things I like about my faith. I will leave this planet in a plain wood box with wooden pins not nails or screws, as is tradition.

    Good luck on this next book.

    • Ambrose Bierce called a mausoleum the “final and funniest folly of the rich,” Alan. I’ve been to funerals with plain wooden caskets. I admire their simplicity.

  6. Elaine, thanks for telling us the story behind the story and for the introduction to “Late for His Own Funeral.”

    Yes, I use news stories for inspiration. Last year, my “Heart Brain 180” was set in a pandemic world where cell phone communication increased drastically, and the opportunities for exploitation abounded. I just published “United We Stand, Dude!” set in the school scene of division and prioritization that drove parents to get involved.

    Congratulations and good luck with “Late for His Own Funeral.”

  7. Early on I clipped news stories that intrigued me and threw them in a box. Every now and again I’d go through the box and see what triggered a plot idea. One item in particular haunted me. A man in L.A. shot his wife, drove to a freeway overpass, shot himself, fell 100 feet to the freeway below, smashed into the windshield of a car, killing the driver. So bizarre. I kept coming back to it. Finally I wrote a first chapter based on it…and by the time I finished it I had the plot idea. This became the first chapter of my Ty Buchanan legal thriller series.

    • I thought of this with Elaine’s question, remembering you mentioning it in a post a while back…

  8. Elaine, what a compelling premise for a novel. Congratulations on its publication! I don’t consciously use news stories, but I have no doubt that they percolate down in my subconscious. Certainly my library mystery series draws on my career working in the public library, as well as my fascination with history. And, I have done research in local newspapers to help deepen ideas I’ve had.

    Have a great day!

  9. Congratulations on your upcoming book, Elaine! Compelling premise and you’ll do it justice, as you always do.

    News stories are the basis for True Crime Thursdays here at TKZ. I have a file full of stories and there’s never a shortage of weirdness.

  10. Congratulations on your new release, Elaine! I love the idea of the misidentified victim. I used the same concept in one of my books.

    I haven’t spent much time looking for ideas in the news, but you’ve inspired me to do just that.

    And like Alan, I’m going to opt for a plain wooden box.

  11. Sounds like a deliciously wild ride, Elaine!

    I haven’t yet used a news story as the germ of a novel, but I always keep my ears open to the stranger-than-fiction world events.

    However, one of my favorite authors, Joel Rosenberg, has written a few novels (years ago) that remind me now of current events. Quite uncanny.

    And our own JSB, in his craft books and tips, has mentioned scanning publications for headlines, etc., and sitting in a public place eagle-eyeing and listening for a story to walk in.

  12. We can all thank the boys and girls who dig up stories and write for the press for a never ending stream of ideas. Edna Buchanan comes to mind as the greatest exponent of the form.

    I’ve written a short story recently about an argument that ended up with a guy getting shot and dumped in the middle of a rural highway a few miles from here.

    Well. You take that skeleton of an idea and start pinning things on it like a dress form and pretty soon, other ideas come along and the story changes and the characters appear and tell their stories. All you need is a nice tasty lead in and away you go.

  13. I remember reading a news item stating that 16 Hitler doubles had been found in a cave in Yugoslavia. That was about ’46. I haven’t gotten around to writing that story . . . yet.

  14. A fun premise for a story, Elaine. Your readers will love it.

    Back when I watched lots of TV mysteries, every season, the same major news item premises would pop up through many of them like chickenpox in a group of unvaccinated kindergarteners. It made me very leery of the practice. This didn’t bother me since I’m more of a theme driven writer. News stories pointed me toward a theme or a minor idea for a few scenes, not toward major plot points.

    Anyway, some years back, I taught an online course called “The Big Question” on how to move from a basic plot or theme idea garnered from the news or wherever to a complete novel. Worksheets included. I’ve decided to publish the whole thing on my writing blog starting on Tuesday. Newbies here are welcome. Click on my name to go to my blog. I publish on every Tuesday so you won’t be overwhelmed. (My blog isn’t monetized so this isn’t spam.)

    • I know what you mean about the chicken pox phenomenon: for a while every mystery seemed to have child abuse. Then it was murderous gay spouse, etc.

      • I recall a time when every thriller would end with the villain’s face coming off, revealing a printed circuit board full of diodes, blinking LEDs, resistors, and electronic junk. Every bomb would contain a count-down timer, whether or not the information would be of any practical use. Come to think of it, they’re still doing that.

  15. Interesting inspiration, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. Can’t wait to read it.

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