The Night Was His

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David Hunter
David Hunter

David Hunter, former Knox County Sheriff’s Office detective and author of numerous books, has died.

His passing was announced early Sunday morning by his family through social media.

“It is with a heavy heart that our family says goodbye to the most amazing man,” said a message posted on his Facebook page. “David passed away at home tonight to begin his next journey. There are lots of people in Heaven that will get to listen to his stories.”

David, 73, was a self-proclaimed “rational anarchist” who published 18 books and countless newspaper columns over the course of his writing career. His byline appeared in both The Readers Digest and Mad Magazine. He was nominated for the Edgar Award and Best Appalachian Book Award, and he was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from The Knoxville Writers Guild.

I first met David Hunter way back in 1990, when Knoxville had two daily newspapers locked in competition: The Knoxville Journal and The News Sentinel. I had just been hired by the Journal, and David was one the paper’s many columnists. 

A veteran police detective who had made more than a few headlines of his own (not to mention a few enemies, such as the owners of several strip clubs and the Outlaws motorcycle club), I was intrigued by David’s firsthand accounts of local crime told from a cop’s perspective.

David was something of a rarity in East Tennessee: a hardened police officer who proudly held to the Thin Blue Line yet was also an unapologetic liberal. He supported workers’ rights, minority rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights …. He often drew a phlegmatic response from Conservative readers, but he never backed down an inch.

But it was David’s other writings that turned me into a fan. It didn’t matter whether he was writing humorous true stories about battling livestock in rural Knox County or fictional accounts of serial killers. The man could write, and he was the first “real” writer I’d ever met. 

I’ve always been astonished and disappointed that David’s work didn’t sit atop the bestsellers lists. He was, however, well known and respected among professional authors, and he counted as friends and admirers some of the most popular crime novelists in the English-speaking world. 

He came closest to fame, he told me, with his early novel, Homicide Game. I can truthfully say that I liked everything he wrote, but it was his introspective “true crime” books that I most enjoyed. I’ve managed to hold on to my dog eared (and autographed) copies of The Moon Is Always Full, There Was Blood On The Snow, Black Friday Coming Down and The Night Is Mine for decades now. 

The Knoxville Journal shut down at the end of 1991. David was invited to continue his column at The News Sentinel, and by the end of the decade I was working there, as well. David took an interest in my career (I primarily covered the cop beat) and we’d periodically grab lunch and swap war stories. Well, it’d be more accurate to say that David recounted story after story while I listened, fascinated, as he told me about the Knox County inmate who convinced him that true evil exists as a force in the world, or the time he’d been falsely accused of brutally beating a young DUI suspect. 

He never ran out of tales to tell.

His thoughts on being a cop and the ethical dilemmas that he encountered on the job have stuck with me. His insights on the nature of morality and corruption often challenged my preconceptions, even when we basically agreed on an issue. 

“The system makes liars of us all,” he told me on several occasions, and I’d be lying if I were to say that phrase doesn’t now pop into my head nearly every time I walk into a courtroom or police station. 

Our friendship deepened as the years passed. We both found ourselves wrestling with chronic health issues. There were many nights we spoke on the phone for hours, trying to distract each other from the physical pain we both were forced to endure. 

The last time I spoke with David, he apologized for not coming around as often as he once had. He didn’t sound quite like himself. He sounded a little too tired, if you take my meaning. We promised to keep in touch and hopefully grab a bite to eat, if and when the pandemic came to an end. 

It’s going to be hard to know that he’ll never be on the other end of a phone call or e-mail again. 

Farewell and Godspeed, David. For a time on this Earth, the night was yours. 

Published February 21, 2021