By Cynthia Tolbert, writing as C.L. Tolbert
I’ve always been fascinated by family dynamics, and how they can shape a person’s life, especially if mental health issues are tucked away somewhere in the family tree. Through the vantage of one family’s history, The Legacy, the fourth book in the Thornton Mystery Series, explores what can motivate us to behave the way we do.
I grew up in the 1960s and didn’t know anyone, not a child, or a parent who had undergone psychological therapy. But child abuse by one’s parents or family members was not uncommon then and alcoholism was widespread. We didn’t talk about our problems. We put on a happy face instead and pushed forward. This often led to trouble, and sometimes, tragedy.
The Legacy finds law professor Emma Thornton defending Jeremy Wilcox, a young man with serious mental health issues, who has been charged with the murder of his mother. The book takes a look at mental illness, and raises the question of ‘nature,’ the biologic, genetic traits one inherits, versus ‘nurture,’ the influence of learning from environmental factors, especially from one’s parents. It also examines how a severe mental illness might affect the defendant, his family, and his community.
Over the past thirty-five years, especially the years I taught and directed a homeless clinic at a New Orleans law school, I represented mentally ill clients, both juvenile and adult. Some were charged with serious crimes, including murder and attempted murder. “Family” or a lack of family support was at the center of each case, and was always an aspect of their unhoused living circumstances.
Mental illness was not uncommon in the New Orleans homeless population, nor was crime. I had the occasion to interview a soft-spoken young man on death row in an effort to find facts which could be used to mitigate his sentence. He told me of his childhood abuse by an uncle and how the abuse led to poor school performance, and finally, drug addiction. The drugs eventually led to the murder of two store clerks. He was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. He remained in prison until he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and transferred to the state mental health hospital. Another young man, also diagnosed with schizophrenia, had been abandoned by his family, and, based on his mental health diagnosis and age, was unable to find appropriate housing. I’ve represented angry teenaged boys charged with murder and attempted murder. None of these young men had family support. Few teachers had ever taken an interest in them, and the teachers that did became overwhelmed and gave up.
All of these experiences inspired The Legacy. This book, as all others in the Thornton Mystery Series, features law school professor Emma Thornton who is determined to find justice for her mentally-ill client. She battles mounting evidence to defend him against the presumption of guilt in the gruesome murders of his parents. Though the book is a fast-paced mystery, The Legacy is also a story of family love, even in the face of abandonment, abuse, and the legacy of mental illness.
C.L. (Cynthia) Tolbert’s Thornton Mystery series incorporates her love of traditional mysteries and includes elements of the places and people she’s encountered throughout her thirty-five-year law practice. Her experiences as an attorney, especially during the years she taught at Loyola Law School and directed its homeless clinic, continue to inspire her stories today.
Licensed in Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, C.L. Tolbert’s roots are in the deep south, though her stories are universal, with characters ranging from a young deaf man accused of murdering his girlfriend in rural Georgia, to a young homeless woman charged with killing the leader of a suspicious cult in New Orleans.
In 2010 C.L. won the Georgia State Bar Association’s fiction writing contest, and, in 2020, following her retirement, developed the winning short story into the first novel of the Thornton Mystery Series, Out From Silence, featuring Emma Thornton. In 2021 C.L. published a follow up novel, The Redemption, a mystery set in New Orleans, which Kirkus Reviews called an “engaging and unpredictable whodunit.” In 2022, the third book in the series, Sanctuary, was published. Kirkus Reviews featured Sanctuary in the April, 2023 edition of Kirkus Reviews Magazine, calling it, “A well-plotted nail biter with believable and sympathetic characters.” C.L.’s love of New Orleans and murder mysteries continues in The Legacy, the fourth book in the Thornton Mystery series.
C.L. is a recent transplant to Austin, Texas, where she lives with her husband and schnauzer, Yoda. She has two children, two step-children, and three grandchildren.