Lisa Black writes what she knows. Like her heroine, Theresa MacLean, she is a crime scene investigator, a forensics specialist who collects and analyzes the physical evidence that will help convict the guilty. In her forensics thriller series, though, she lets Theresa take an active role in tracking down killers, while always striving to keep the stories as realistic as possible.
Lisa is now a forensic scientist for a police department in Florida, but she sets her novels in Cleveland, where she worked previously. In CLOSE TO THE BONE, the latest in the series, Theresa faces death and destruction in the one place where she’s always felt safest: the quiet coroner’s office where she has worked for the last fifteen years. Returning late at night with evidence collected from a crime scene, she finds one colleague missing and another dead—with the word “Confess” written on a wall in his blood. Deeply shaken but determined to do her professional best for her co-workers, Theresa throws herself into her job. Soon she finds a link to another death ten years before. As more staff members die, Theresa realizes she is an integral part of the killer’s scheme and must work against the clock to uncover the truth about what happened all those years ago and save herself from becoming another victim.
Recently Lisa talked to THE BIG THRILL about why she brought murder so close to home for Theresa, why she sets her books in Cleveland, and other aspects of her writing as well as her day job. She also provided a tantalizing hint of what might lie ahead for Theresa after the devastating events of this novel.
CLOSE TO THE BONE is a perfect title for a story in which Theresa MacLean’s workplace colleagues are being murdered and she could also be a target. What inspired you to start killing off people who work in the forensics department?
I try to keep the books very true-to-life, and give an accurate portrayal of how things actually work in the field of forensics. Despite that, my forensic scientist always seems to spend more time out of the lab than in it, which is not at all realistic, so I thought if I could set a story right in the lab, that problem would solve itself. Besides, what better way to make my character vitally, and very personally, involved?
Why do you set your novels in Cleveland, where you worked previously, instead of in Florida, where you live and work now? Is there something about Cleveland that makes it a better setting for the kind of stories you want to tell?
I think so, because Cleveland has more variety in terms of age, culture, urban areas, history, and current events. Where I live in Florida we have a high percentage of retirees and tourists and the ground is flat with a lot of open area. It’s just hard to picture danger and menace in a place where happy people are cavorting in the brilliant sunshine all the time.
Theresa is very protective of crime scenes when police officers are on hand and might inadvertently contaminate evidence. Does this reflect your own experience? How do the roles of forensics investigators and police differ at crime scenes?
Everyone’s job at a crime scene is a little different. An EMT’s job is to save the person’s life, and if they move your evidence or cut through the bullet holes in the clothing, tough. A cop’s job is to secure the scene, to ensure the safety of everyone around, including them. So if they have to move the murder weapon out of the suspect’s reach, tough. That’s the way it has to be. But that doesn’t mean we don’t gnash our teeth over it. And we ourselves eventually have to disturb the crime scene, and that’s one of the nerve-wracking parts of working it. We can only creep gingerly around and take photos for so long. At some point we have to start moving stuff, and there’s always the danger that we might move something that turns out to be important later on.
Do you have any idea why ordinary people have become so fascinated by forensics? In your experience, do many citizens have a good understanding of the work you do and its uses and limitations?
I think people are enamored of forensics because it’s another way to approach the mystery story, and we’ll never get tired of mystery stories. But also I think people enjoy learning things—it stimulates our brains and gives us something new. Regarding juries and their perceptions, an instructor once told us that “juries don’t know as much as they think they do, but they do know more than they used to.” In other words people are better informed about forensics overall, but the shows also give them unrealistic expectations. But again, some things that even I think are just Hollywood—like McGee tracing an email as it bounces all over the world—really is possible. My department has neither the training nor the equipment, but it is possible.
After publishing nine novels of forensic suspense, what have you learned about readers and their tolerance for realistic details of crime investigation? Are there some things they don’t have the stomach for? Others they want to see more of? Have you ever been surprised by a reader’s comments?
I’ve learned that what I think “isn’t really gross” isn’t the same as what other people think isn’t really gross. I’m never trying to gross anyone out. I’m just trying to be realistic. Believe me, I could get a lot more gross! I was giving a talk one time and a quite elderly lady asked me what was the bloodiest scene I ever saw. I said, “I usually get that question from teenagers.”
You’ve chosen to let your characters age naturally—Theresa is now forty-four, and her daughter has gone off to college. Do you think you’ll slow things down at some point, or do you envision taking Theresa into her fifties, with all the concerns of an aging woman?
I’m fifty, so I am currently consumed by the concerns of an aging woman. It’s probably not the best idea from a marketing point of view, but I can’t help it. I want there to be life past thirty!
What attracted you to a life of analyzing crime scene evidence and hanging out with cops and dead people? Were you a science geek or a crime buff as a kid?
Both. I always liked science and I’ve been a crime buff for as long as I can remember. I watched every cop show on the air, but I didn’t want to be a cop. I don’t like dealing with live people. Dead ones will not bother you, but live ones can be really obnoxious and intimidating and needy. So forensics is the perfect compromise for me.
Between your work as a forensic scientist and your writing, do you have much time to read for pleasure? What kind of books do you choose for relaxation?
I do read too slowly—I waste too much time on my crossword puzzle addiction—but I’m still making my way through the three hundred books I got to judge for the Thriller Awards a few years ago. I still get others if I need to do some research, or read a great review. Right now I’m reading FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: A MEMOIR by H. D. S. Greenway.
What’s next? Are you writing another adventure for Theresa? Will you have to re-staff her department after the events of CLOSE TO THE BONE?
I do have future plans for Theresa. This is all maneuvering her into position to meet a particular man, believe it or not. But I have a stand-alone in mind too. It will be a complete departure, provided, of course, that I ever write it. I love the character and I love the setup but I don’t know what happens after the first chapter. Doh!
Lisa Black is a certified latent print examiner and crime scene investigator for a south Florida police department. Prior to that she worked as a forensic scientist for the coroner’s office in Cleveland, Ohio. Closet to the Bone is her ninth published novel of forensic suspense.
To learn more about Lisa, please visit her website.