The Man On The Roof
by Michael Stephenson
Someone has been creeping in the dark while the others sleep, and they’ve done terrible, terrible things.
“There was a man on your roof,” claims curmudgeonly lane-hermit Herbert McKinney. Then, he initiates an unprovoked fight with a local punk. Drama escalates when that punk’s dead body is found hanging at mid-street one August morning—a boastful killer messaging their next prey. All fingers point to Herbert as the culprit. Soon, the five couples he calls neighbors come under suspicion, too. When detectives divine blackmail as the motive, eyes cross to find who hides the most shameful secret. Husband versus wife, friend versus friend, the shiny suburban veneer of innocence has been forever tarnished. As hidden deviousness boils from their pores, there lurks a thief, a pill addict and a sadist—secrets worth killing for.
Now, as the man on the roof helps guide justice and watches devious neighbors slip in and out of sleepy houses, confusion and questions persist. Who dies next? What have they learned? Who is becoming a monster? Who already is one? And just how many secrets can a small group of multi-ethnic Ohioans have? Only one cemented truth exists: the killer will kill again.
A taut domestic mystery-suspense thriller, The Man On The Roof propels the reader through a tangled, volatile and suspenseful thicket of deception, murder and friends, inviting the reader to discover the murderer and who hides which lie. First there was Gone Girl. Then there was The Girl on the Train. Now, there’s The Man On The Roof.
Q & A
Who was your favorite character to write for in the novel?
I loved writing for the Old Man with Gabby as a close second. The old man has this biting sarcasm and dry wit about him that isn’t all that witty, but more mean and surly, and I just adore it. He’s reached that point in life where he really can’t spare a single damn to care about what you feel about him. He’s just a weird, out there character and at times you don’t know if he’s senile, just in a state of grief or what the hell he’s doing. Yet, he sneakily moves the story along in a way that mimics the reader’s own journey through this twisted tale. He somehow still draws your attention and you’re always keeping an eye on him and what he says and does because you know that it’s probably important but maybe not. I think out of all the characters in the novel, outside of the detectives, he is the only one who is partially designed to be likable for every reader.
What motivated you to adapt the structure of the book that you ultimately used?
Good question. I definitely had (still have) some reservations about setting the book up using an amalgamation of two narrative styles, especially with so many characters. I rarely write in first person to begin with, so this was a different experience for me. I always felt that first person was limited, but that it had one really good draw in that it let us know the inner-workings of a character’s streaming mind. The idea only came to me to switch from my usual style after writing the character profiles for what was, at the time, still a short story. And I had just finished writing my first mystery novel The Knowledge of Fear in which I had a line that I ultimately didn’t use, which read that people are a mystery even unto themselves. So I just thought why not make everything a mystery? And truly just about every major element in the book is a mystery. So I wanted to see if people truly paid attention to the details in a book, to how people talk, to how they act toward each other, to every little tick and personality trait that we witness in everyday life when we meet people. It takes our own perceived skills of literally “judging a book by its cover” and turns it on its head to ask if you really are spot-on with a good read or not. For instance, if you met Allegra in real life and sat down to talk with her for an hour, would you be able to tell at least one mystery about her?
Who or what has been most influential in your writing career?
I know that I could get into a bit of trouble for this because the divide between readers and watchers is still as hotly contested as the divide between church and state in some people’s minds, but I would say that I am most influenced by film and TV. It probably would’ve sounded less pretentious to say a single person rather than an entire storytelling medium, but I have to go with what started this. I watched and understood more adult-oriented TV shows and films long before I had the vocabulary to read novels written for teens or adults. I think that a lot of us, when we think back on our childhood, probably had that experience. I remember watching One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and The Shining as a child under the age of ten and thinking, “Wow! These stories are brilliant.” And I understood them. And then you learn later that they’re both based off of books but half of the words I couldn’t even pronounce, and we didn’t have these great online phonetic resources at the time like what we do with the internet now. Even when I would look up words, I still couldn’t grasp the concept of the definition. And The Shining I didn’t have the stamina for at the time. It was a long read and I read very slowly. So the ability for film and TV to tell a story, to start with a character or a group of characters that you don’t know, and somehow, within a few short hours make you care for them, for their future, for their well-being was magical to me as a child. What better way to live than to write stories that could transport you to different places?
Were you ever worried that the heavy subject matter and darkness of the novel might turn readers off?
Definitely. With the #MeToo movement dominating the social conscience, I fear that some of the social commentary in my book will be damned. I especially grew fearful that it could sink my career before I ever got it started again after reading and thoroughly researching the backlash that other similar novels got. Gillian Flynn and Gone Girl were lambasted for Amy’s turn, and called sexist and deeply misogynistic. Some readers felt deeply disappointed that a female author would write such harsh criticism essentially about toxic femininity or the oft-mentioned, but rarely criticized Mean Girl mentality. Then there are the myriad of criticisms that still come out each day for each new book featuring an unreliable female narrator or practically any woman shown in a bad light. Some have called the portrayal of women in The Girl on the Train as either drunks or “sluts” dismissive and reductive. And despite his best efforts, AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window has been accused of featuring another weak woman with addiction problems. Then, when you add the men into the equation, all the male characters are seen as sex addicts and jerks who are not worthy of their counterparts or our sympathies. Mikael Blomkvist was an average-guy journalist who somehow bedded every woman he came across and never had anything bad happen to him while the women around him are continually brutalized. Even after the twist in Gone Girl, few readers felt sorry for Nick. While diary Amy earns sympathy because of what her husband supposedly put her through, Nick is looked at as an idiot in the end because he’s going to stay after what Amy put him through. So, regardless of the sex of the villain, I knew I was probably going to turn off some readers simply by featuring sloppy, twisted characters. Throw in a heaping pile of controversial, taboo, “we shouldn’t talk about this” topics and my less-than-delicate treatment of them (I don’t box with kid gloves) and you had one seriously worried writer. But I also think that these things need to be addressed, especially because of the era we’re in.
What can your readers take from this particular novel?
There’s a lot. Think Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Childish Gambino’s newly released buzz-worthy music video This is America and I think my novel falls into those categories. That’s not to say that this book is all about race. No, I’m saying that the book has a slew of deeper meanings that one might miss the first time through. I designed this book not only to be read more than once, but to be more of an experience than a read. Should it entertain? Yes, hopefully. But there’s also so many layers to it that makes it thick with potential commentary for fans of the novel. You have race stuff, political issues, gender issues, socioeconomic issues, familial issues all layered into this story. When you read it, if you like it the first time around, I think it could be even better the second time around because so many things have changed and can be read differently. I think the experience of reading the book for the first time is similar to one of the passages in the book in which a character is sitting in a therapy session and—I shouldn’t spoil it for you. But let’s say that the reader’s mind after reading it the first time has been trained and opened to see tons of other things within the narrative and it’s suddenly become an entirely new world. I had even thought about releasing a companion book if The Man On The Roof became popular enough, but I don’t know if I wanna be too pretentious. In the end, I tried to craft a mystery that never lets up on the mystery, and one that even if you skip all the way to the end of the book to spoil yourself, would still be an engrossing read.