Thursday, April 4, 2013

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder by Diana Staresinic-Deane

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder by Diana Staresinic-Deane is a true crime novel that was written by a friend of a friend. My friend Michelle had been telling me about this novel off and on for months since I started this blog. Since Michelle has been my main support for my blog from the beginning I jumped at the chance to read and review this book when I was offered a reviewers copy. Its not my typical genre but I am always willing to read a well written free book!

In 1925 a housewife by the name of Florence Knoblock was murdered.
In 2007 a library assistant by the name of Diana Staresinic-Deane found a green folder containing 22 newspaper clippings.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder is the culmination of a 5 year hunt for the truth.

On Saturday May 30th, 1925 John Knoblock came home to a quiet house. While bringing in the groceries he stumbles on a gruesome scene - his beautiful wife Florence is lying on the kitchen floor dead. (I won't go in to details, it is truly gruesome.) Using the party line, he first called his father in law and then called the sheriff.

What happens next isn't too far from a circus side show. According to the new's articles, over one hundred friends and neighbors appear at the Knoblock house to find out what has happened. From the beginning the law enforcement investigation is more than a bit farcical. Men were arrested and questioned for no real reason other than rumors and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. One man was held for weeks because the sheriff was afraid the man would be lynched if he were released.
I won't lie, when I was reading about the 1925 investigation I wanted to bang my head against the wall because of how poorly it was conducted.

Shadow on the Hill: The True Story of a 1925 Kansas Murder covers the 1925 investigation and murder trial of John Knoblock. John Knoblock was charged three times and stood trial twice. To this day the real identity of the murderer remains unknown though there are many theories.

I don't normally read True Crime, but I thought this book was amazingly well researched and written.
4.5 out of 5! The missing .5 is because I still want to know who committed the murder.

Interview With The Diana Staresinic-Deane:

In the introduction to Shadow on the Hill it says they you found a folder with newspaper clippings while chasing children playing hide and seek. What made you want to take that collection of clippings and turn it in to a true crime novel?
DS-D: I had no idea how much those newspaper clippings would change my life when I picked them up. I still remember reading them at the reference desk and sharing bits and pieces with my colleagues that day. There were articles about the murder and investigation and a few about the trial in Emporia (these were printouts from the Lyon County newspapers), and then the obituary for John Knoblock when he died many years later. I remember thinking, BUT HOW DID THE TRIAL END?! because that article, the one that announced his acquittal, wasn't in the bunch. The research began that afternoon when I sat in front of the microfilm reader just to get the ending of the trial. It was just curiosity. But the more I read, the more curious I became, especially after I discovered there was nothing--and I mean NOTHING--out on the internet. I couldn't understand how such a major story had escaped documentation on the web.

When I finally found Florence and John mentioned on a genealogy website, I got the wild idea to contact the family and ask if they would be interested in copies of the newspaper articles. That descendant mentioned hearing a story about a possible witness, and I remembered getting goosebumps. That was when I began to seriously think about the need to tell the story.

When this endeavor started all you had was a stack of 80 year old newspaper articles. How did you get started with your research, what was your first step?
DS-D: This was a challenging story to research! In my favor was the fact that two brilliant newspaper men - John Redmond of the Daily Republican and William L. White of the Emporia Gazette - were documenting the events day by day. They were smart, observant reporters who really conveyed not only the details of the crime, investigation, and trials, but also the mood of the community. they wrote hundreds of pages of newspaper stories, giving me lots and lots of names to research and avenues to explore.

The biggest downside was that the case was so old. So many of the people who were old enough to remember the story had long since passed on. The trial transcripts were gone. The evidence was gone. Even the courthouses that held the trials were gone.
However, descendants of many of the key people involved in the story were still alive and generously agreed to talk with me about what they heard growing up, and every time I thought I hit a dead end, I would serendipitously come across someone or a clue that would give me a new direction to explore.

What was the most rewarding/frustrating aspect of researching and writing Shadow on the Hill?
DS-D: The most rewarding thing is feeling like I've pulled the story together in such a way that it is accessible and preserved for future generations. I hope that I conveyed the fact that this wasn't just a murder, but a community of real people who were really hurting.

The most frustrating part about researching the story was the fact that I couldn't find all of the answers. I couldn't actually solve the murder; I could only share the information that actually exists. Someone out there may have the answer. They may not even know they have the answer. Or the people who really know what happened - Florence Knoblock and her murderer - took the answers to their graves.
On a personal note, I was not prepared for how hard it would be to immerse myself in the pain and fear every time I sat down to write. Even though there are some very funny moments, it's not a happy story, and I remember feeling wrung out after writing for a few hours. I still can't get past the scene where little Roger wipes his father's tears during the trial without getting choked up.

In the epilogue you mention that this is still an unsolved crime with several suspects but no real evidence. In your personal opinion is there one suspect who stands out from the rest?
DS-D: I really believe that the person who killed her was known to her, and I'm kind of amazed at how determined the community was to insist it was an outsider of some sort. I believe that it had to be someone who could move about the area without attracting suspicion, and strangers get noticed in a small farming community. The tough part about pointing fingers at anyone in particular is the fact that so many of the descendants of the 1925 neighborhood still live in the area today, and, not being a hard-nosed investigative reporter, I don't want to case undo harm to a family by accusing the grandfather of murder without true evidence.

Are you planning on writing more books? If so, any particular genre in mind?

DS-D: This story has opened my eyes to how many old crimes there are that are essentially unknown because they're documented on a reel of microfilm somewhere and otherwise not accessible to the public. As I learned writing Shadow on the Hill, an unsolved murder isn't just a crime, but a piece of community history. There are a few other stories from the first half of the 20th century that have caught my eye, and I'm hoping there is enough material there to develop into another book.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote - Truman Capote is credited with creating the true crime genre with his book about the 1959 murders of a family in Kansas.

The Devil's Rooming House: The Story of America's Deadliest Female Serial Killer by M. William Phelps - I found this book through Googling true crime novels set in the 1920's. This title really intrigues me.

The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America by David R. Stokes - Yet another 1920's true crime novel. Something about that era is super interesting.


  1. Love this entry! I can't wait to finish the book!

  2. I LOVE true crime and I'm glad you took the time to reveiw this book! I'm SUPER interested in it and am going to take a note of it so I can hopefully get it.

    Now I'm all curious about it!