The Making of a Mystery Writer
By Dawn Ius
The first novel Eileen Cook ever wrote was a mystery—a book inspired by her love of the genre, but unfortunately one that will never see the light of day.
The manuscript was rejected numerous times, with one agent including this soul-crushing note: “For your edification, the purpose of a mystery is to not know who done it in the first chapter.”
“I have to hand it to the agent for both using ‘edification’ in a sentence, and being bold enough to tell me what I needed to hear,” Cook says.
Ultimately, the message Cook received was that she didn’t have the chops to write a mystery—yet. While some authors may have traded in their typewriters, Cook didn’t give up. Instead, she turned her skills to contemporaries, writing—and publishing—eight young adult novels and a middle grade before the allure of the mystery once again became too strong to deny.
And so, a few years and a handful of successful books later, Cook tried again, this time with an addictive psychological thriller about a teen girl who forgets about six weeks of her life. With Malice became Cook’s first “dark” mystery for young adults, followed up in 2017 with The Hanging Girl, and now this year’s chilling release, YOU OWE ME A MURDER.
The story follows Kim, a recently heartbroken 17-year-old now forced to spend a class field trip to London with her ex-boyfriend and his new love interest. While she watches their overt PDA, Kim can’t help but think her life might be easier if her ex were dead—though she’d never say that aloud. Well, except to her seatmate, Nicki, an older girl on her way back to London with some significant problems of her own. By the end of the flight, the two are joking about swapping murders—it’s all fun and games until Kim’s ex-boyfriend mysteriously dies, and Kim is on the hook to fulfill her end of the bargain.
It’s a somewhat far-fetched premise made relatable—perhaps even believable—by Cook’s command of the craft, and the story takes us through a labyrinth of twists and turns that fall squarely within the parameters of a mystery. Clearly, Cook has honed her suspense-writing skills.
“I knew the plot was a stretch,” she says. “But I also knew that people can be pushed to do extraordinary things under the right circumstances. What was important to me was that the reader feel the characters were real and three dimensional. When I work with other writers, one of the things I hammer home is that motivation is critical to creating characters that readers will follow—even into dark places.”
YOU OWE ME A MURDER doesn’t shy away from those shadows. Cook believes that young adults have—and should have—the ability to create their own boundaries of what they want to read, and though she admits to devouring Stephen King as a child, she doesn’t think her novels veer off into too-twisty territory.
“All of us, teens and adults, read for both entertainment and to make sense of the world,” she says. “I’m a firm believer that reading about darker things allows us to confront the things that scare us in a safe way.”
In YOU OWE ME A MURDER, Kim must confront perceptions of good and bad—most notably, how the decisions she makes change the way she feels about herself and others. And as a former counselor, Cook understands that there is good and bad in each of us—just as there are in her characters.
Kim and Nicki couldn’t be more opposite in some ways—Kim the more vulnerable, and Nicki mysterious and manipulative—but each of the girls has a place in Cook’s heart.
“If I was on a plane between the two of them, I suspect that Nicki would be the most charming and interesting to listen to—but also the most dangerous,” she says. “Kim is much more like me, a touch awkward, interested in nerdy things, and likely to snort when she laughs.”
Another trait Kim shares with the author is geography—both are Canadian and call beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia, home. From that home base, Cook has started working on her next book—another young adult mystery still in the research and development stage.
Regardless of its plot, readers will be in for a treat. Cook has firmly established herself in the genre, enough so that she could probably edify the agent that turned down her first manuscript—or at least make him wish he’d been given a second chance to scoop her up.
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