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The Rope

A True Story of Murder, Heroism, and the Dawn of the NAACP

From New York Times bestselling author Alex Tresniowski comes a page-turning, remarkable true-crime thriller recounting the 1910 murder of ten-year-old Marie Smith, the dawn of modern criminal detection and the launch of the NAACP. We spoke with Tresniowski about his book and its echoes to today's sociopolitical currents.

A Conversation with Alex Tresniowski, author of "The Rope"

History in Five: What drew you to write about the Marie Smith case? 

Alex Tresniowski: I’d heard about the case from a friend of mine who was interested in writing about it. I’d never heard a thing about it before I spoke with her. When she didn’t pursue it, I waited a few years before taking looking into it myself. One of the first things I did was go to the Holy Cross Cemetery in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to see the grave of little Marie Smith, the 10-year-old girl whose murder in Asbury Park in 1910 starts the story. I had trouble finding her plot and I soon learned her parents had been too poor to afford a stone or even a marker. So all that was there was a little dirt patch with a bunch of weeds growing out of it. I think that’s when I decided I wanted to tell the story, so that, at the very least, Marie Smith wouldn’t be so forgotten.


Hin5: Can you explain the significance of your title – The Rope?

AT: It has two meanings. The story I wound up telling is actually two stories, of the investigation into Marie’s murder, but also of the events that led to the creation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909, and the Marie Smith case becoming only the third legal case ever handled by the NAACP. So the rope refers both to the instrument used to lynch thousands of black people after the Civil War in an effort to suppress black economic progress, and also to the tactic employed by the lead detective on the Marie Smith murder case—an undercover agent known as a “rope.”


Hin5: The Rope spans different years, regions, and characters. How did you balance telling these different stories within one narrative? 

AT: That’s the fun of it. It’s fun to weave all of these people and events and places and emotions into one big rich tapestry of American life at a certain moment in history. I don’t know if I succeeded, but the goal was to keep these two parallel stories moving along quickly and seamlessly, so that the reader is exposed to all of these colorful people and dramatic conflicts that in the end coalesce into a single powerful message or takeaway—which in this case is that we as Americans, and as humans, are never better than when we help give voice to the voiceless.


Hin5: Is there anything you wished to include in your book but couldn’t? 

AT: Yeah, about an extra 30,000 words. I came across so many fascinating stories that were not necessarily about either plot line but that said a lot about the time and about America in general. There was a story of a young daredevil named Benny Prince who was a balloonist and aerialist who jumped from balloons hundreds of feet in the air and parachuted to safety, which in 1910 was a major attraction in resorts like Asbury Park. And in his final jump, something horrible happened, and it is such a tragic and heartbreaking story, and it speaks to the nature of the American spirit, and I would have loved to include it in the narrative but there were only so many stories I could get in there.


Hin5: How did you approach your research? Did anything surprise you?

AT: You try to pull everything. You cast the biggest net. Usually I start with, which provides contemporaneous articles about whatever event you’re researching, and in my case I was lucky enough to have a series of stories about the Marie Smith murder in the Asbury Park Press, which captured the urgency and sadness of the killing, as well as the rush to judgment in naming a suspect. What surprised me was how intimate and detailed and just brilliant the reporting was back then. You get the most incredible details that really help define a character, from what liquor they liked to how they dressed and even how they moved. You get to see these figures from history spring to life right from the pages of these old newspapers. I’m guessing many writers will tell you the research is a lot more fun than the writing.


Hin5You’ve made a career writing true crime – how has this genre evolved over time?

AT: I started as a writer at PEOPLE Magazine, and was assigned to write most of the true crime stories, which inevitably were the most popular stories in any given issue. And since then, the only real way that the genre has changed, I think, is that it’s become even more popular. It lends itself to just about every medium—podcasts, books, movies, graphic novels. There’s just an enduring fascination with, and attraction to, the dark and twisted underbelly of human nature that we enjoy experiencing from the safe distance that art provides. I always try to remind myself that I am writing about real people who mattered and suffered, so that I don’t start seeing them as characters in some gothic drama. But for sure, true crime provides a very unique and clear window into the human soul.  


Hin5: What books inspired you as you wrote The Rope

AT: Erik Larsen’s stuff, because he’s so good at immersing readers in the worlds he creates. I reread In Cold Blood because it is the benchmark in vivid, intimate reporting of true crime. Otherwise, I would download samples of a lot of different types of books just so I could dip into them and see how their stories begin, and feel inspired by how immediate an old event can be in the hands of a good writer. I read Underworld by Don DeLillo because he has a way of making you hear a story as much as read it, of using a sound to connect characters and amplify the story. In that book, it’s something like the crack of a bat at a ballgame. To capture something like that in a book and use it to enrich the drama is just really good writing.


Hin5: What impact do you hope your book makes?

AT: I began working on this book long before the George Floyd murder, but then events caught up to what I was doing and I discovered that history was just repeating itself, as it tends to do. What Ida Wells devoted her life to fighting 150 years ago is essentially the same thing that Black Lives Matter fights for—the sanctity of the black body, the right to exist in society without feeling like you’re not safe. Mostly these days, I am listening and reading—I’m not in any position to talk or lecture anyone about anything. But I do hope that anyone who reads The Rope will notice how the fight that’s happening today is not a new fight—it’s the same fight that has raged through our history, the fight to define what kind of America we all want to live in.