Lisa Black could never be accused of writing the same story over and over. Her thriller series featuring Cleveland forensic scientist Theresa Maclean has tackled topics ranging from serial killers (including Cleveland’s version of Jack the Ripper) to a hostage situation in a bank to the murder of a former escort to a little girl nicknamed Ghost who has witnessed her mother’s murder – and more.
As a working crime scene and death investigator, first in Cleveland and now in Cape Coral, Florida, Black uses realistic procedural details in her fiction and doesn’t bend the truth the way television crime shows often do. A string of rave reviews praising her quick pacing and absorbing plots indicate that realism doesn’t have to slow down a story.
Black’s latest novel, THE PRICE OF INNOCENCE, begins with Theresa caught in an explosion that might have been intended to kill a local inventor/entrepreneur. When federal investigators take over the case, Theresa tries to settle back into the normal run of cases at work, only to have a police officer murdered in front of her. Theresa’s investigation draws her into the world of methamphetamine production, where she uncovers a circle of new money and power, a conspiracy of silence going back twenty years – and connections between the explosion and the cop killing.
What inspired her new book? Was it a situation, a person, an intriguing real-life crime?
“As always, I have no idea,” Black admits. “It might have been sparked by my husband getting hooked on BREAKING BAD though the David Madison character had been rattling around in my head for a while.”
As with all her novels, Black weaves forensics into THE PRICE OF INNOCENCE in an entertaining way. But both explosives and meth production are outside her area of expertise (trace evidence), and like any writer she had to do some research to get the facts straight.
“I have not worked an explosion site,” Black says,“and I even keep missing the few meth labs we’ve had in this town. The closest thing to a bomb I’ve worked is when some teenagers put muriatic acid in a 2 liter bottle, wrapped some foil around it and left it in someone’s mailbox. Apparently they believed the acid would eat through the bottle, hit the foil, and react, which didn’t happen–muriatic acid is, after all, stored in plastic bottles.”
How does a forensics expert research forensics? “Much the same way other people do–library, internet. At the office we have a number of textbooks and reference materials that I can use, and I have no qualms about asking questions of colleagues, ex-colleagues, friends, family members and anyone else I run into while writing a book. I nearly always call on my ex-chemistry professor from college, but he was especially instrumental in this book.”
After writing several novels about Theresa MacLean, Black is still surprised by the way reviewers and readers see the character. BOOKLIST describes Theresa as “a spunky, outspoken, whip-smart heroine.” But Black says, “I don’t see her as spunky or outspoken because I see her as me–too unassertive–and she speaks up during investigations because that’s her job. But that’s why I usually pair her with Frank [a police detective]–as her first cousin, there is nothing she won’t say to him; that might be quite different if she were speaking to an officer she didn’t know. But of course with every book she gets more comfortable with herself, and more confident.”
Black’s books have a lot of the sly humor, dark jokes, and occasional laugh-out-loud lines that readers have come to expect from fictional crime scene investigators. Is this simply the imaginations of writers at work, or does it reflect the real world of crime and death investigators?
“Personally,” Black says,“I’m much wittier in print where I have time to think and revise, but yes, we do have a pretty good time. You should see some of our office emails. Not that we make fun of people’s tragedies–of course we don’t–it’s more laughing at ourselves when we’re cranky from getting pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, or dripping sweat at a burglarized house with no A/C, or covered in fingerprint powder from processing a car on a windy day.”
In THE PRICE OF INNOCENCE, Theresa observes, “She had learned from her years in forensics that true mysteries weren’t as common as one might expect. What seemed apparent was, more likely than not, true.” Yet forensics experts do see crimes that are misleading on the surface and require complex investigation to uncover the truth.
“We’ve had plenty of cases in which the situation seemed different at first,” Black says. “One case I thought immediately was simply a runaway juvenile turned out to be much more tragic. We had a case of suicide which my boss thinks was assisted and I disagree. We had the inexplicable homicide of a nice young woman which turned out to have been committed by the young budding serial killer next door–who probably could have easily gotten away with it had he not been so fascinated by his crime that he kept butting into the investigation.”
More often than not, though, murder cases go the opposite direction. “Usually murders start out looking complicated and wind up as sadly mundane–two people got into an argument, one wound up dead and the other decided it would be a good time to make himself scarce.”
Television has created a wildly unrealistic vision of the average forensics lab that Black always discounts when offering advice to other writers or speaking at conferences. Most forensics work, she emphasizes, takes place in the background and people like her seldom have a starring role in an investigation.
“We solve less high-profile crimes like burglary all the time,” she says,“with fingerprints and sometimes with DNA, but those cases rarely go to a jury because the defendants plead or otherwise bargain the case. In my experience, in cases like murder we often have great forensic evidence but there’s also literally a crowd of witnesses or suchlike so that the verdict isn’t hanging on only the forensics. We tend to prove the case more than actually ‘solve’ it. And remember that, unlike TV, I am only searching fingerprints of people arrested in my area, not job applicants, not military. We don’t have databases of perfume or wall paint or tea. We can’t ‘hack into’ the inventory of Whole Foods to see who buys organic couscous.”
Sometimes the truth is inconvenient in fiction, and some writers don’t hesitate to fictionalize procedure to speed up their stories. Because forensics is her profession, Black tries to avoid taking such dramatic license.
“I know I’ve fudged things–I can’t think of anything specific at the moment but I’m sure I have–but since my little claim to fame is being more realistic than TV, I try to keep everything strictly factual. With me it’s okay as long as it’s within the realm of extreme possibility but it can’t be flat-out untrue…and I make use of the Notes and Acknowledgments page to set the record straight. I also don’t want to help people become better criminals, so though my current book deals with a meth lab, you won’t be able to cook meth after reading it.”
The crime novelists she most enjoys reading are Lisa Gardner, Brian Freeman, Mark Billingham, Tess Gerritsen.
Black has written books and short stories under three names. If fans of her Lisa Black crime fiction want more, they should look for her first two novels, TRACE EVIDENCE and UNKNOWN MEANS, written as Elizabeth Becka, and the e-books she’s published under the name Beth Cheylan.
What’s next for her? Another Theresa MacLean novel or something different?
“Both, I hope,” Black says. “I wrote two books this year. My agent and I are putting the finishing touches on them right now, so we will see what happens after the holidays.”
Lisa Black spent the five happiest years of her life in a morgue. As a forensic scientist in the Cleveland coroner’s office she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s a certified latent print examiner and CSI for the Cape Coral Police Department. Her books have been translated into six languages and reached the NEW YORK TIMES mass market bestseller’s list.
To learn more about Lisa, please visit her website.