By Joe Sharkey
Here is the chief regret I had after researching my true-crime book “Above Suspicion” starting in 1992: The most interesting character in the book was dead. Although almost everyone in this sad story cooperated with me in 1992 in its telling, 28-year-old Susan Smith, coal-miner’s daughter who had many goals but lacked the means to achieve them, could not speak for herself, and I had to struggle to chisel her character from the memories and impressions she left with others.
I get a second chance, however, in a new edition of “Above Suspicion” that I am currently finishing up, for publication in conjunction with the major motion picture adaptation of the book, which wrapped filming in the mountains of Kentucky last week.
The narrative, set in the rugged coal-mine country of eastern Kentucky in the late 1980s, centers on two very strong, very complex young women who find themselves in tragic orbit around a handsome young rookie FBI agent. In 1993, in the kind of book review a writer practically weeps with joy to read, Lawrence Shames wrote in Newsday of “Above Suspicion” that it was “bleak and unflinching.” He said, “this is a harrowing book, a taut and compelling true-life tale of duty and hypocrisy, of physical death and the death of dreams.”
Each of the main characters in this sad story wanted something very badly. Mark Putnam, the dashing, diligent rookie FBI agent assigned with his family to the wilds of eastern Kentucky only a week out of the Bureau’s training academy, sought a bright lifelong career in the FBI, his dream job, and through dint of hard police work in a very rough environment, was well on his way to it.
His wife, the beautiful Kathy Putnam, wanted to combine being a mother to their two young children with being the wind beneath her husband’s wings — but she also wanted more control of Mark’s career, because he needed her guidance. Kathy wanted all of this and, in time, as nets tightened in the dystopian mountain environment that was the exact place where the bloody Hatfield-McCoy feud played out almost a century before, she wanted out of what had become a private hell for her.
Kathy, a bright girl from Connecticut, tried hard to fit in, but she came to hate her new, strange surroundings. “The awfulness of the place is stupefying,” as Shames wrote in his review.
Falling ever deeper into depression, Kathy longed instead for a secure suburban life with her hard-charging husband and two toddlers, in a place where a young agent could work in a normal Bureau assignment, within a network of professional and social support. Such was her desperation to escape that she deliberately exposed herself to danger, working undercover herself in a dangerous criminal investigation, knowing that a threat to an agent’s family was a sure-fire way to ensure a reassignment out of town.
But pretty, smart, manipulative Susan Smith wanted so much more. When she became Mark’s top-producing criminal informant in the rough-and-tumble of eastern Kentucky’s Tug Valley, just across the river from West Virginia, Susan threw herself into the job, and prided herself on her newfound status. And she delivered, exposing criminal activity for the FBI at grave risk to herself. Kathy, in turn, befriended Susan — who actually began modeling herself after Mark’s wife in dress and even in the way she spoke, trying to downplay her native “hillbilly” accent.
Susan became sexually obsessed with Mark, who resisted for a time and then succumbed as they were thrown together more intensely. Mark was the only man who ever treated Susan with respect in her hardscrabble life. That is, until he killed her when she violently threatened his ambition, and dumped her body in a mountain ravine one dark night in 1989. (A year later, consumed with wretched guilt, he confessed to the unsolved crime, the only FBI agent ever to be convicted of homicide.)
There are various ways to tell this story, and in telling it as I did — with the full cooperation of Mark and Kathy, as well as the prosecutor, the police and many in the region — I was determined to write about an American tragedy that inextricably linked three people: Mark Putnam, Kathy Putnam, and Susan Smith, amid terrible forces that ultimately destroyed them all.
Twenty-three years have passed after the book was published by Simon & Schuster. Now suddenly, this year, as I noted, a movie is being made based on “Above Suspicion.”
Over those years, to an extent that surprised me, I had often fretted that my depiction of Susan Smith in the book nearly a quarter century ago was inadequate. So I now welcome the opportunity to remedy that, with new material available, in a story that I realized over the years was mainly about two women.
So as the movie got literally rolling in eastern Kentucky in May, I wondered, Would “Above Suspicion,” the movie, also embrace the “Female Gaze?”
The journalist Melissa Silverstein wrote eloquently about “Embracing the Female Gaze” last summer in Indiewire.com, noting that the “seminal” shaping of her consciousness in this regard came from Molly Haskell’s landmark feminist work, “From Reverence to Rape: the treatment of Women in Movies,” which was first published in 1973 and is being released in a new updated edition in September.
Haskell’s work, and another important work, Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” both “use a feminist context to help us understand how women were, and sadly still are, treated in the movies,” Silverstein wrote.
Against this context, I wondered how “Above Suspicion,” directed by Phillip Noyce and starring Emilia Clarke and Jack Huston, would stand up as a women’s story as well as the tale of a man who loses his dream in a single (and I have always believed, unpremeditated) act of deadly violence.
As I’ve said here before, the producers and the director graciously allowed me to spend some time on the set on location in and around Harlan, Ky., this month, before the movie wrapped last week. It was a tough shoot in a very remote location hours of mountain driving from the nearest commercial airport.
This was one of the hardest-working creative enterprises I’ve ever seen. Shoots were day in and day out, usually morning till night, sometimes in places in the hills that were even harder to get to than tiny Harlan (population 1,800) itself.
The cordial young Jack Huston, fresh off an arduous shoot in Italy where he played the lead role in the $100 million remake of “Ben-Hur” to be released next month, was a pure trouper playing the role of the young FBI in the movie. Accommodations were sparse in Harlan for a cast and crew that suddenly descended en masse, and Jack (along with several producers and other key actors) stayed throughout the shoot in the just-the-basics, two-star, 60-room Comfort Inn, the only motel in a town that is also, incidentally, in a “dry” county. Emilia Clarke and others were put up in various rented accommodations throughout the area, from mountain bungalows and cabins to “downtown” apartments.
Huston initially had balked at a screenplay that, in my opinion, failed to fully humanize the main characters in favor of a kind of wisecracking, antic hillbilly world of cops and robbers and “their” women. But Huston, working closely with director Phillip Noyce and with Jim Huggins, a retired FBI agent who had actually supervised the process where Mark Putnam finally confessed, found his character.
“Jack is very modest fellow, who had just been over in Italy doing “Ben-Hur,” and he had a mustache and goatee and everything when I first met him, and I thought, man, this is never going to work” Huggins said. But then, during the first day of shooting in a location that was supposed to be a regional FBI office, “there he was in his blue suit and white shirt and tie, and he has his hairstyle like Mark’s. I did a double-take. I said, wow, Jack, you look just like him,” said Huggins, who says he is still emotionally moved by the sad story of a young FBI agent whom he greatly admired, and who ended up so ruined in circumstances that could have been avoided.
The real Mark Putnam got out of prison in 2000 and has quietly resumed his life. Kathy Putnam died suddenly in 1998 of a heart attack and liver disease, age 38.
Noyce had chosen to shoot the movie in Harlan, 90 miles west through the mountains from where the actual events took place, because the actual locale, Pikeville, has since prospered, with a medical center and a sprawling college, to the point where when I visited last week it was almost unrecognizable to me, after I’d spent to much time there researching the book almost a quarter century ago.
But an hour’s hard mountain drive to the east, in Freeburn, a town named because of the quality of the coal it once mined in the boom years, in profusion, the landscape was still utterly familiar.
It was odd for me to look up some of the people in Freeburn whom I had first talked to while researching the book, including Bertie Hatfield, a county deputy sheriff who still manages his used-car lot beside the Tug Fork river, and still remembers in vivid detail how he and the young FBI agent Mark Putnam met warily but became friends, good-old boy and Connecticut Yankee on crime-fighting sprees in the mountains. “This guy was ready, he was gung-ho, and when were working together we never knew what quittin’ time was,” Hatfield recalled last week, adding:
“Susan, that girl was something. She was my informant first, and I passed her on to Mark. They were amazing together. As an informant, Susan was just outstanding. She knew how to charm people to get what she wanted. Even if somebody would accuse her of informing on them, she’d manage to use her personality to convince them that couldn’t possibly true. And with Mark, for the first time in her life, that girl had goals and a mission. That girl would have made a great spy, by the way, if she hadn’t been so messed up.”
Susan Smith lies buried in that coal town by the Tug Fork where she grew up, in a family cemetery in a mountain hollow named Barranshee, a place that some folks once called “Lonesome Holler.” An hour’s drive away, the approach to the mountain ravine where her killer had dumped her body in 1989, and where it remained undiscovered till he confessed a year later, has been landscaped by the strip-mine company that owns it.
I stood there for a while last week and tried to imagine young Susan Smith. I sought the same thing at her grave. In Freeburn, I visited her sister, Shelby Ward, the one person who had been suspicious when Susan disappeared in 1989 that Mark Putnam had something to do with it, and who kept pressing till she got results.
But it was a quarter century later and Susan is only memories, even to her sister.
Where this poor country girl lived on, at least in spirit, was back in Harlan, where a movie director who instinctively understood that this was a story largely about her, and a young actress known best for a TV fantasy series was determined to breathe life into Susan Smith, and I told 29-year-old Emilia Clarke on the set that I could see she was doing just that.
“That’s what I wanted,” she said, after she and Noyce had finished shooting the last scene, showing Susan, radiant in ethereal light, come back to life for one poignant moment.
I don’t know how “Above Suspicion” (or whatever they might choose to rename it before its release next year), will succeed as a character-driven movie about those things that happened in eastern Kentucky 25 years ago. But I do know that — all respect to Jack Huston, Austin Hebert, Johnny Knoxville and other actors who made the male characters their own — this will be in large part a movie that at its best will reflect a strong female sensitivity, and I credit the producers Colleen Camp and Linda Bruckheimer, as well as Clarke and Noyce, and others for that achievement.
Here are some of the women who made that happen, starting with Colleen Camp, the indefatigable actress and producer who believed in this book and never gave up:
Just finished the book and googled mark putnam to find out what happened to him after his release. Very sad. I agree with your assessment that it is the story of two strong women and I look forward to the movie.
I remain sad that Mark and Kathy Putnam’s lives were ruined by a manipulative, conniving, lying user like Susan. While Susan did very little to make the world a better place, Mark had a history that showed he was a genuinely good guy who excelled at everything he did and would have gone on to accomplish even more great things if Susan hadn’t pushed and threatened him to the point that she made him snap. I normally don’t feel sympathy for a perpetrator, but in this case I deeply empathize with Mark and grieved when I heard Kathy passed away. Wishing Mark and his children well moving forward and hope they find happiness.
The only evidence that suggests Susan was the aggressor in this relationship is Mark’s version of events. Given that he murdered her when he learned that she was pregnant with his lovechild, I think it’s safe to say that Mark is an unreliable witness. There’s a substantial trend amongst cheating spouses to blame their affair partner for the genesis of the sexual relationship, when their secret breaks. It’s an effort to distance themselves from culpability by weaponizing the other party. Quite frankly, it’s BS. Mark may have been in a higher tier of society than Susan was but that amounts to nothing by way of true character. Mark used his influence to his advantage and milked every last drop out of Susan in order to further his own career. What he didn’t count on was how strongly Susan became attached. Her upbringing and environment made her a vulnerable target, but it also made her a volatile one. Susan’s mental, physical and emotional health were atrocious because she never experienced anything other than toxic poverty and pain. She didn’t even graduate middle school and got married to a drug dealer while the rest of her peers were picking out prom dresses. Mark’s upbringing was the complete opposite. It surprises no one for someone like Susan to enter into a relationship like this. Society views her as the lesser and equates her to trash. But Mark definitely should have known better as the college educated, professional FBI agent and middle class “hero”. He was a federal investigator and received extensive training on human behavior and psyche. The idea that Susan pulled one over on him and just beguiled him with her sex kitten ways is ridiculous. He knew exactly what he was doing and is in no way a victim here. Mark only confessed when he realized that he was a suspect and he failed the polygraph. He didn’t step forward out of the goodness of his choir boy heart. He killed a woman that he used as a career booster because she had the audacity to believe him when he whispered pillow talk in her ears. And his poor wife and children believed him when he told them that they were a priority to him. He destroyed the lives of two families. Susan’s social standing doesn’t make her any less valuable than Mark. Her life mattered.
I agree. I never saw him as anything other than that. As you probably realize, my sentiments were with Susan and Kathy, Susan couldn’t speak so it was my responsibility to render as full a character as my reporting and observations would allow. Emilia Clarke, by the way, made heroic effort to understand the character and I think was very successful in her portrayal in the limited time a movie affords. Thanks for your perceptive comment. Joe
Hi Mr Sharkey,
I just finished the audiobook “Above Suspicion”. As an avid true crime reader, I don’t know how I hadn’t heard about this story before. Your book was incredible! Your careful and fair portrayal of the main characters left me with feeling of sympathy for each of them (in different ways). Kathy seems like she was an amazing person. Susan seemed like an intelligent and kind person, perhaps just a bit too impulsive. I’ve been telling my friends about this book. You are an outstanding writer. “Above Suspicion” is right up there with my otter favorite: “Bitter Harvest”.
Thank you for writing a great, albeit tragic, true crime book.
I’m so sad to hear about Kathy’s death !! Mark was entrapped in my opinion . His forever loving in laws call it a crime of passion!! Susan Smith was a scank looking for a free ride , who chased after Mark !! She should have been home caring for her own children !!! This whole story didn’t have to happen… a rookie should have never been sent to the area !!! Great writing !!
In my opinion, the actresses playing Kathy and Susan should have been reversed. Emilia actually looks a bit like Kathy. To me Sophia looks more like Susan. I keep hearing that Kathy and Susan were two strong women. I totally disagree with that assessment !! Kathy was strong, smart and totally family driven. I can say this…I’m from Harlan County and spent a lot of time in Pikeville . Susan was a user, a shank, gutter rat , prostitute, meth head ect. ect. I wouldn’t be surprised if she hadn’t drugged Mark to have her way with him !! The biggest mistake Mark made was to confess , in doing so; he traded his beautiful family for that SCANK !!
Movie should have been filmed in location it was about. You say it was because Pikeville had changed, but there’s still plenty of the original buildings. It showed places that looked nothing like the original locations.