Setting the Bar High
It’s a scenario that has played out again and again in recent months: a prominent man is accused of sexual misconduct, and the floodgates open to reveal years or even decades of alleged abuse. The potential for heated conflict is baked in as revelations play out on social media, but the conversation is guaranteed to intensify if the allegations are in stark contrast to the perpetrator’s public image — say, a comedian renowned for championing progressive causes, or a politician who pays lip service to conservative values.
Novelists and screenwriters will surely dissect this moment at length in the months and years to come, but the bar is already high thanks to Alafair Burke’s latest thriller, THE WIFE. The issues that led to the current reckoning — and the difficult questions that have arisen in its wake — are writ large in Burke’s new standalone, which seems eerily prescient in the age of #MeToo.
Of course, it’s a long journey from a blank page to the new-release table, and Burke’s manuscript was finished before the hashtag went viral last October.
“Even before people were talking about #MeToo or Harvey Weinstein, there were already headlines of beloved public figures, usually men, doing things that seemed inconsistent with their public persona,” Burke says. “I guess I can name names — from Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby to even Donald Trump, I suppose. There’s the face that we see in public, and some of those men, at least, were known for good works, including ones that benefit women. And then behind closed doors, they apparently become somebody else.”
The idea of a powerful man who isn’t what he seems has long been fertile ground for writers of genre fiction, but Burke found inspiration in another factor that hasn’t been as widely explored — one that led her headlong into the territory of domestic suspense.
“What I kept noticing is how the wife becomes scrutinized,” she says. “It can’t just be about what the man did and what his penalty should be; the wife becomes part of the narrative. [People insist] she must’ve known, that she’s complicit. Every decision she makes becomes scrutinized to the point that when the first woman nominated to be a presidential candidate for a major party shows up to a debate, her husband’s accusers are sitting in the audience, brought by her opponent. Every time the woman gets dragged into the story, I thought, what’s it like to be that woman?”
In THE WIFE, that woman is Angela Powell, whose carefully constructed life is upended when her husband, Jason — a high-profile advocate of socially and environmentally responsible economic practices—is accused of sexual harassment. The scandal metastasizes when another woman comes forward with a more disturbing accusation, leaving Angela to question how well she really knows her spouse. But the most sinister turn is yet to come when one of Jason’s accusers vanishes, leaving the police, the public, and Angela to wonder if Jason is something even more dangerous than a serial abuser.
Anyone who’s read Burke’s famously twisty thrillers might suspect that there’s even more at stake for Angela than battling the fallout of her husband’s behavior. They’d be right, of course; she has a hell of a backstory that is parsed out slowly as the narrative hurtles forward. Details are best left unspoiled, but suffice it to say that her traumatic past, along with her determination to escape its shadow at any cost, emerges as THE WIFE’s driving force.
“I knew her backstory before I knew anything — before I was even sure exactly what Jason would be accused of, let alone whether he was guilty,” Burke says. “There’s no way someone could experience what Angela experienced and not have it echo throughout her life, no matter how hard they tried. And so that helped me know her. I knew she would be a person who followed routines. She would be a person who didn’t want any drama, who told herself constantly she was fine, who wouldn’t go to therapy. And a person who’s trying so desperately to keep control over her present life would look cold to someone else, right? She’d look like a Stepford Wife. So one of the challenges was writing Angela in a way that didn’t sound overly flat. Even when she tells the most horrible details of her past, she says it in this sort of journalistic way, and I thought that it would come across as bad writing, frankly, unless people really understood that that’s what Angela would be like.”
Like her 2016 standalone The Ex, THE WIFE represents a stylistic shift for Burke, whose backlist includes the Samantha Kincaid legal thrillers, the Ellie Hatcher police procedurals, and an ongoing string of collaborations with suspense legend Mary Higgins Clark.
“There’s a reason THE WIFE took me a long time to write, and so did The Ex, actually,” says Burke. “I think what was different about them is that they’re not procedurals—they weren’t following the flow of an investigation from the perspective of the investigator. They were more personal stories. Especially in THE WIFE, the quickest chapters for me to write were the ones where you get to see what the police know. Those chapters, for me, felt sort of like my earlier books. I know exactly what a police investigation looks like. I know exactly how those people talk, how they think.”
Angela’s scenes, though, were considerably more difficult. While “write what you know” is a frequent (though dubious) maxim, part of the challenge for Burke — a former prosecutor who now teaches criminal law — was to put aside what she knew and write from a layman’s perspective.
“Angela knows very little about the law, and she’s not in a position to even know the facts,” she says. “People assume the wife knows the most about her husband, but in some ways she may know the least. He shows her his best side, his kindest side. She doesn’t see this other side. And she’s not part of the case. She’s not an investigator. Having to put myself in the dark that way to write her perspective really was challenging, so it took me a little longer.”
Burke says she didn’t necessarily set out to write a domestic thriller and doesn’t think much about genre as she writes, though she’s always interested to see how her novels are categorized by reviewers and readers.
“I joke sometimes that I’m subversive with my publisher,” she says. “Whatever trend they want, I’m like, ‘Yeah, if you want to call it that, that’s what it is’. When no one wanted to read legal thrillers for a while, I turned in The Ex and I just didn’t call it a legal thriller. It seemed like a domestic thriller because it’s about a woman who’s trying to figure out if her ex is a good guy or a bad guy. But in my mind, that woman’s a really good lawyer and went about it in a very lawyerly way. So when The Ex came out, there were some lists, like Top 15 Legal Thrillers You Need to Read, or Top 15 Domestic Thrillers You Need to Read, and it was interesting to see it cross those lines and be called psychological suspense or domestic thriller or legal thriller. I always enjoy seeing my books cross those subgenre lines.”
Creating a Character That Strikes a Chord
By R.G. Belsky
The New York Times bestselling authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child are back with a new Agent Pendergast thriller, and this one has a sensational ripped-from-the-wildest-tabloid headlines premise: A serial killer in New York City who cuts the heads off his victims.
The bizarre decapitations in CITY OF ENDLESS NIGHT-—plus the presence of an aggressive New York Post reporter out to get a big scoop who Pendergast has to outsmart as well as the killer—brings to mind the famous real-life Post headline: “Headless Body in Topless Bar.”
As it turns out, I was one of the editors at the New York Post then who helped produce that memorable headline, so naturally my first question for Preston and Child was how much it served as an inspiration for this book. The authors said they originally came up with the beheading idea for a different reason, but “absolutely that headline was very much in both of our minds.”
“I lived in New York when that issue of the Post came out,” Preston recalls. “I was living with a girl with a keen sense of humor and she came home with 10 papers. She said: ‘Look at this headline. It’s the most amazing headline. It’s the headline of the century, they’ll never be a headline better than this.’ ”
A Setting Most Deadly
By Alex Segura
Some might think that an author of Nelson DeMille’s caliber, one who has consistently made bestseller lists and received worldwide acclaim for his thrillers, has little to prove. DeMille, the author of notable books like Plum Island and Night Fall, would disagree.
With his latest, THE CUBAN AFFAIR, DeMille cements his reputation as an author of compelling, finely crafted and at times, humorous standalone thrillers.THE CUBAN AFFAIR bursts with DeMille’s signature authenticity—a byproduct of DeMille’s passion for research—and introduces readers to Army combat vet “Mac” MacCormick, who, at 35, finds himself living the good life in Key West as a charter boat captain. When he and his charter boat are hired to participate in a Cuban fishing tournament on the communist island, Mac balks. But when the fee rises to $2 million, he finds it impossible to turn the offer down. Mac is soon entangled with an alluring Cuban-American woman named Sara Ortega and an older, enigmatic exile named Eduardo.
Mac and his newly formed crew discover the real reason for the trip: to uncover a $60 million bounty hidden somewhere in Cuba by Sara’s grandfather as he fled the Castro revolution. With relations between the U.S. and Cuba warming up, the clock is ticking before someone else finds the fortune. The predicament places Mac at a perilous fork in the road—survive and get rich, or die and disappear.
Writing Books to Be Proud Of
By R.G. Belsky
It was 30 years ago that Scott Turow’s blockbuster debut legal thriller Presumed Innocent became a publishing phenomenon—and he’s still going strong.
Turow’s new book, TESTIMONY, features all the gripping courtroom drama, shocking plot twists, and compelling characters that the author is famous for. But this time there’s something new: The setting is far away from his familiar Kindle County.
Bill ten Boom, a lawyer and ex-prosecutor, has left Kindle County to start a new life with a job at the International Criminal Court in The Hague–where he needs to investigate claims of a Bosnia massacre of 400 gypsy refugees more than a decade earlier in which American NATO troops are a prime suspect.
“It’s a little more than the standard midlife crisis,” Turow says of the Bill ten Boom character. “As it turns out, his is related to having found out at age of 40 that his parents and thus he are not completely who he thought they were. That’s the event that has been bubbling beneath the surface for him. He jettisons one thing after another–his marriage, his job, his country.”
Turow says he’s wanted to write a novel set in the international court for a long time, even since he visited The Hague and talked to lawyers there back in 2000. He had to do a lot of research on the story line about a fictional Bosnia massacre and the Roma (gypsies) for this book, but not so much on the international courtroom itself.
“The court was a lot easier,” he explained. “Evidence is evidence…the basic concepts of criminal investigation and prosecution are pretty much the same.”
Thrillers in the Real World
What is ARARAT? It’s a high-octane thriller, set on the real-life Mount Ararat in Turkey. It’s a supernatural story, with an unnerving element of horror. It’s a modern take on religion, as the shocking discovery at the heart of the novel brings out primal spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof. And … it’s a love story.
This may sound like a lot, but in the hands of bestselling author Christopher Golden, it most definitely comes together. Kirkus says, “A thriller with an intellectual bent, Golden’s latest effort ruminates on the nature and existence of good and evil while providing the chills and tingles…”
“I like to do things on more than one level,” Golden says.
In the novel, a competition among climbing teams seems won when an engaged couple filming the adventure for a documentary find remains in a cave on Mount Ararat that could be connected to Noah’s Ark. But a certain unsettling discovery in an ancient coffin leads to tensions among the researchers, scientists and local guides—and those tensions explode when, one by one, team members begin to vanish.
“To me, Ararat is a thriller first, an adventure novel first, so that is what I wanted from this,” says Golden. “I always have a romantic storyline going on, because that’s life.”
The supernatural aspect of the plot, while audacious, exerts a terrifying grip because, within the world built, it is convincing. “I always try to keep it tangible and real,” he explains.
Crafting the Adrenaline Rush
There is a maxim in publishing that among the various types of genre writers out there, thriller novelists are the nicest people. The theory: these smiling, helpful folks are getting all the darkness out on the page.
If this phenomenon is true, then Lisa Gardner is a leading example—for a number of reasons. Living in New England with her family and pets, she contributes hours to the Child Services agency in her area, particularly foster children with special needs. She not only enjoys meeting up with fellow authors at conferences—“I love the community of writers,” she says—but has gone above and beyond to write detailed (and freely available) advice for aspiring novelists, including synopsis critiques.
And then you come to her thrillers. They are … terrifying.
Gardner knows she’s scaring people to death, and, well, she’s happy about it. “We like our thrillers because they are an adrenaline rush after a long, hard day,” she says.
But where do the devilish twists and turns, the harrowing moments of harm, bubble up from? “I’m honestly not sure where the ideas come from,” Lisa admits on her website. “They simply come to me, particularly creepy, scary ones. I guess it’s a good thing I can turn ideas into novels, because being an ax murderer doesn’t pay nearly as well.”
Finding the Echoes of Betrayal
By James Ziskin
Themes of betrayal, dishonesty, and infidelity are at the heart of John Lescroart’s latest novel, FATAL. Not something one would necessarily expect from one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. Yet he manages to plumb the depths of human selfishness and sin with an assured hand.
Lescroart is the New York Times bestselling author of 26 novels, including the Dismas Hardy series of legal and crime thrillers. His books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide and have been translated into more than 20 languages. He has been nominated for the prestigious Anthony and Shamus awards and won the Book of the Year from the American Authors Association in 2007 for The Suspect. He was the 2012 guest of honor at Left Coast Crime, and most recently received the Silver Bullet Award from the International Thriller Writers for his work promoting literacy. Besides being a bestselling author of thrillers, Lescroart is a talented musician/songwriter, with hundreds of works to his credit.
His latest ovel is a departure from his bestselling Dismas Hardy series. FATAL is a standalone thriller that deftly straddles a variety of subgenres. Lescroart presents the story of lives spiraling out of control as the result of a single indiscretion. It’s a compelling crime novel/domestic thriller that confronts readers with tough questions on fidelity, marriage, and responsibility. FATAL is a cautionary tale, a police procedural, and modern-day morality play rolled into one.
I had the honor of talking to John Lescroart about FATAL, his successful career, his made-it moment, and even his music.
A single act of infidelity is the catalyst that sets fateful, almost inevitable consequences in motion. There’s an element of Greek tragedy to FATAL. It’s quite effective and compelling. Can you talk a bit about the themes of transgression in this book?
Perhaps because of my Roman Catholic upbringing, I have always been drawn to classical, even Biblical themes. In fact, I would be hard pressed to remember any book of mine that did not find its genesis in the power of its theme, not its plot. FATAL took this natural predilection to a whole new level. From the outset, I knew I would be trying to bring a universal quality to this story—it’s a large part of why I abandoned my old familiar Dismas Hardy world, and decided to work with an entirely fresh cast of characters. I knew I was going to be working with the classical themes of sin, guilt, transgression (as you say), and redemption. While remaining specific to my characters and plot, I wanted this book to feel big, to feel like it included the whole wide world because of the universality of its themes. Without including any spoilers here, the repercussions of that one single act of infidelity alters not only a myriad lives but the internal landscape of the city of San Francisco itself.
Building a Better Antihero
It’s hard out there for an antihero.
From Batman to Bond, readers have shown an insatiable appetite for dangerous men (and women) who operate somewhere between the letter of the law and the spirit of justice. Few archetypes have been quite so rapturously enshrined in the canon of pop-culture icons, but that lofty status comes with a steep price: whether he’s dodging fists or wrestling with his own tragic backstory, the antihero often finds himself going it alone. They don’t call him a “lone wolf” for nothing.
By definition, these characters move in a world that’s at least a few shades darker than our own. Lately, though, that darkness has gone pitch-black—a tendency so ubiquitous that it was skewered in the lyrics of The Lego Movie’s “Untitled Self-Portrait (Batman’s Song)”: “Darkness/no parents/continued darkness” and so on.
Author Gregg Hurwitz has made a conscious choice to buck that trend with Evan Smoak, the eponymous protagonist of his critically acclaimed Orphan X series. Though he was raised in the Orphan Program, a black-ops enterprise that turned him into one of the world’s most efficient killers, Evan has gone rogue to do right; now operating under the moniker “the Nowhere Man,” he devotes his life to rescuing innocent people from seemingly hopeless situations.
Like Jack Reacher and Jason Bourne, Evan Smoak is lethality and machismo distilled to an almost crystalline purity. But Hurwitz found a surprising angle to set his protagonist apart from similar characters: he imbues the series with liberal doses of humor and pathos by sometimes pausing the speed-of-light action to focus on Evan’s home life. In the clutches of enemy operatives, Evan can withstand the grisliest of tortures without breaking a sweat; in the Los Angeles apartment complex where he resides, though, the scrutiny of an elderly busybody named Ida Rosenbaum tends to put the secretive assassin on his back foot.
It’s a winning formula, to say the least. With the second Evan Smoak thriller, THE NOWHERE MAN, dropping this month from Minotaur, Hurwitz is already under contract for three more Orphan X novels, and Bradley Cooper’s production company has picked up the film rights. (Hurwitz, who has published 16 novels, scripted comics for Marvel and DC, written for network television, and sold numerous screenplays, is penning the big-screen adaptation himself.)
By Dawn Ius
Never kill a character the same way twice.
Wise advice for all authors, perhaps, but a strict code by which James Rollins writes. For a guy that pens at least two novels a year that are rife with death and mayhem, that isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds.
Rollins lives by this same creed when writing the page-turning action for which the New York Times bestselling author is known. And after more than a dozen novels in his Sigma Force series alone, finding a balance between breakneck pacing and character development can still be a delicate process.
“You can’t just have action for the sake of action,” Rollins says. “I always look for ways of tweaking the action in a different way. You don’t want to exhaust your reader.”
It should come as no shock then that THE SEVENTH PLAGUE, Rollins’ sixteenth story in the Sigma Force collection, is a breathtaking race through time and history in an effort to answer a harrowing question: If the biblical plagues of Egypt truly happened, could they happen again—on a global scale?
When the leader of a British archeologist expedition is found murdered and an autopsy report reveals that his body had begun to mummify—while he was still alive—his remains are sent to London for further study. But back in Egypt, the medical team in charge of the autopsy has fallen ill to a strange disease that is quickly spreading across Cairo. The situation is dire—and most alarming—because the archeologist had vanished while searching for proof of the ten plagues of Moses.
To unravel a secret that goes back millennia and stop a global crisis, the Sigma Force team must confront an ancient threat that is made more dangerous—and deadly—by modern science. A threat that could very well decimate mankind forever.
But the long-standing heroes of Sigma Force are more than simple “men of action.” THE SEVENTH PLAGUE continues Rollins’ tradition of creating compelling characters that demand an emotional response from the reader.
“If I’m going to dangle a character over a cliff, the reader has to be invested,” Rollins says. “They need a good reason to hang in there and finish the story.”
A Writer’s Luminous Vision
“What we are doing is writing the fictional autobiography of our souls.”
That’s how David Morrell, a bestseller for more than 40 years, characterizes his work. His latest novel, the historical thriller RULER OF THE NIGHT, was praised as a “crackling yarn” by Kirkus and “spectacular” by Publishers Weekly.
Morrell, the self-described “mild mannered professor with bloody-minded expressions,” burst on the scene in 1972 with the novel First Blood, considered the ur-text of the modern thriller.
With First Blood, Morrell aimed to write action without “relying on pulp expressions that had been recycled and recycled and recycled, like ‘a shot rang out’ or ‘gun smoke filled the air.’ ” For inspiration, he looked to Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and Farewell to Arms, even To Have and Have Not, which, Morrell says, “still has some degree of pulp. Hemingway found ways to write action using expressions and language that hadn’t been used before. I wanted to write [the action in] First Blood in a way that no one had before, even if I had to invent the vocabulary.”
Morrell won’t do a scene if he has read or watched anything like it. But he also likes to build on what other writers have done. He was inspired by Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) chase scene through the playground in Slayground (1971). “Stark takes the reader on this fantastic chase through amusement park rides. Then [Parker] gets into a high-rise hotel under construction. Now the chase, which was horizontal, becomes vertical, going up through the unfinished building.
“When I write action scenes, my goal is to do big production numbers. At least two or three per book. First Blood is one big production number with lots of little elements, particularly the bat cave scene in the middle of it.”
A Writer Who Defies Expectations
Alex Kava’s literary career is a beautiful paradox. In addition to great writing, a series of accidents, surprises, and unintended consequences have helped bring us some of the most beloved mystery thrillers being written today. On the eve of the release of her latest novel, RECKLESS CREED, Kava spoke to The Big Thrill about her surprising journey.
To begin with, Kava didn’t set out to write thrillers. In fact, genre was not a consideration at all.
“When I wrote my first novel, A Perfect Evil, I wanted to capture the raw emotions of a small-town community held hostage by a killer,” she says. “My killer was loosely based on serial killer John Joubert. I worked for a newspaper during Joubert’s killing spree in the fall of 1983. He kidnapped and murdered two Nebraska boys before his capture.”
Surprise number two: Although she worked on the paper, she was not a journalist but a paste-up artist and part-time copy editor. Still, being in the building, she learned more about the case than the general public. So when she decided to write a novel, she was able to use bits and pieces from the Joubert case. By then she had already committed to writing after 15 years in marketing and advertising.
“I quit my job as director of public relations for a small college. I’d always wanted to write novels. I even had one in my bottom desk drawer that had received 116 rejections from literary agents.”
That novel remains unpublished, but she moved full steam ahead into the next, doing whatever she had to, to give herself time to write.
“I taught part-time, delivered the Omaha World Herald on the weekends, and ran up my credit cards to help pay the mortgage and living expenses while I wrote A Perfect Evil.”
With so much marketing experience, you might think she sold that novel easily. Well, not exactly, but she was sharp enough to see the lesson in her 116 rejections.
“There were too many comments in the margins that said stuff like, ‘This is too harsh to be a romance,’ or, ‘The suspense is good but you need to tone down the violence,’ or ‘Add some romance,’ ” Kava says. “I suspected that the literary agents expected a romantic suspense novel from Sharon Kava, which is my real name.”
A Thriller of Heartbreaking Realism
By Josie Brown
Real thrillers are a part of everyday life. Proof of this is Andrew Gross’s personal connection with concentration camp survivors, which inspired the creation of his latest novel, THE ONE MAN.
Critics are already praising this sixth novel from the New York Times bestselling author as his finest book to date, and for good reason. It’s a page-turner that embodies the heartbreaking realism of one of recorded history’s most appalling crimes against humanity.
Here, the novelist shares with The Big Thrill his process for creating a story filled in equal parts with sorrow, despair, courage, and hope:
The Holocaust and World War II are sensitive topics for many of its survivors. In fact, you mention in your author’s note that your own father and father-in-law have never spoken of their losses—yet, at the same time, their experiences were the catalyst for the book’s concept. How did this come about?
My father-in-law came to this country from Warsaw in April, 1939, six months before the war. His family stayed, and of, course, became swallowed up in the fate of most Jews left in Poland. He never learned the fates of any of them. In the end, he was the only one in his family to survive the war.
Like a lot of survivors, he went through life with a cloud of sadness over him, a mantle of guilt and loss. In 1941, when the U.S. entered the war, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and because of his facility with languages, was placed in the OSS. He never spoke, even to his own children, of those experiences either.
In writing THE ONE MAN I wanted to delve into what was behind that sadness and shame that my father-in-law clearly carried for the rest of his life. I knew there was something he had buried very deeply, that he wouldn’t let surface. So the idea of atoning for the guilt of surviving became something I embraced and gave life to. In many ways, the true character of the book is the old man in current times at the beginning and the end of the book who finally let’s go to his daughter and tells his story. In many ways, I wanted to write the story I thought he, my father-in-law, would write.
Finding Darkness in Bright, Shiny Places
A video went viral after the London Olympics, taken of the parents of American gymnast Aly Raisman as they watched her compete on the uneven bars. The couple flinched, drew together and leaned back as one, fixated on their daughter. Although sitting in the spectators’ area, the gymnast’s parents seemed to move as she moved, utterly unaware of how they might appear.
Reaction to the video on the Internet was amused, scornful, and appalled. How could it be healthy for parents to be that identified with their daughter?
Novelist Megan Abbott had an altogether different response. Could she explore the world of female competitive gymnastics—specifically, the family of the gymnast—in her next novel of suspense? The answer to that question is YOU WILL KNOW ME. In the novel, the tensions of a close suburban family, devoted to the high-stakes training of talented teenage Devon Knox, explode after a sudden death in their gymnast community. Devon’s mother, Katie, finds her life unraveling as she realizes not only her daughter (on an Olympics track) but also her obsessed-with-greatness husband are becoming unknowable to her.
“I’ve always been interested in the families of prodigies and how the power circulates,” Abbott says. “With parents of teenagers, there’s the moment when you realize there are things about them you will never know.” If that child is the focus of the family because of an exceptional talent, then it becomes even more difficult to maintain control.
Abbott’s work has won critical acclaim for her stylish prose, descriptive power and complex characterizations: “Crushed cocktail parasols gathered on the sills and crumpled leis collected in the corners like parade remnants catching on her feet, heels too high, too narrow, and she found Devon in the restroom, washing her face, washing all the performance makeup away. Turning to her mother, she looked oddly blank.”
Each novel takes Abbott at least a year to draft. “I work on pacing the most,” she says. “Character has always been the place I begin, my anchor, but suspense comes in the later drafts, in rewriting. With immense help from my agent Dan Conaway and my editor Reagan Arthur. It’s very hard to read your own work for the hundredth time and understand how suspense operates. I count on them!”
Abbott, not an athlete as a child, grew up in a bookish Michigan family. Yet she remembers her entire family revolving around her brother’s baseball games for a time and drew on that dynamic in creating the fourth member of the Knox family, Devon’s younger brother Drew, more interested in science than balance beams. He is the one who sees things perhaps the most clearly in the entire family—and becomes a figure of poignant tragedy.
In her first books, Abbott’s focus was on crime and noir. Two of them reference notorious crimes. The Song Is You is based on the disappearance of Jean Spangler in 1949, and Bury Me Deep on the 1931 case of Winnie Ruth Judd, who is known as “the Trunk Murderess.” She is also the author of a nonfiction book, The Street Was Mine: White Masculinity in Hardboiled Fiction and Film Noir, and the editor of A Hell of a Woman, an anthology of female crime fiction.
Building the Perfect Hero
Joseph Finder writes high-octane bestselling novels of suspense, conspiracy, and ruthless corporations. His books have garnered top industry awards including the ITW Award for Best Novel (Killer Instinct 2006), both the Barry and Gumshoe Awards for Best Thriller (Company Man 2005), and the Strand Critics Award for Best Novel (Buried Secrets 2011). Two of his standalone thrillers, High Crimes and Paranoia, have been made into major motion pictures.
Following up on last year’s standalone New York Times bestseller, The Fixer, Finder is back this month with GUILTY MINDS. Featuring the bruising and brilliant “private spy” Nick Heller, GUILTY MINDS is the third novel in this popular series (after Vanished and Buried Secrets). This time, Heller is hired to stop a salacious story about the chief justice of the Supreme Court and a call girl. But that’s just the beginning of this thrilling ride.
I had the chance to talk to Joseph Finder about GUILTY MINDS, his writing career, and what makes his protagonist, Nick Heller, tick.
Nick Heller is a tough guy. But he’s also very smart and cultured. He knows art better than most, he’s a jazz snob, and of course he’s a human lie detector. What else can you tell us about his history?
Nick’s an unusual guy. He was born into great wealth–his father, the odious Victor Heller, was the Dark Prince of Wall Street–and then lived in poverty after his father was imprisoned for securities fraud. So he’s equally comfortable around rich people and the blue collar. He knows the world of high finance and is not intimidated by swaggering displays of great wealth; in fact, he’s deeply cynical about it. He went to Yale and worked for a few summers at McKinsey, the consulting firm, but then he rebelled by doing the unthinkable—dropping out and enlisting in the army, where he did a few tours in the Special Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and other places, and then went into intelligence work for the Defense Department.
The idea for Nick Heller was born when I heard about how thousands of CIA officers were laid off, or took early retirement, and went private. I thought: now that’s interesting. That’s different. A spy who’s gone private. That could be cool. He can go anywhere, including foreign countries, and won’t be limited to working in his home city of Boston. He’s not himself a techie, but he’s also not totally ignorant of computers and such. He knows how to do email, which may be the limit of his technical knowledge, but he can understand it when Dorothy, his forensic tech, explains stuff to him.
I had the luxury of creating Nick Heller after I’d written literally millions of words. He didn’t appear until my ninth novel. I’d come far enough along in my writing career that I knew, instinctively, what would work and what wouldn’t. I knew he was going to be a character I wanted to take on a long ride with me—so he had to work as a series hero. A good series character has to be an investigator, some species of detective, if only on the side. But Nick isn’t really a private investigator. He does private intelligence work—in other words, he does the same sort of stuff he used to do for the government, only for the private sector — individuals, politicians, corporations.
Embracing the Legacy—and Setting a New Mark
I’ve heard that varied experiences, an artistic temperament, or even genetics could predict writing talent. By any of those measures it’s no surprise that Daniel Palmer has turned out a steady flow of bestsellers. After earning his master’s degree from Boston University, he spent a decade as an e-commerce pioneer. He’s an accomplished blues harmonica player. And he’s the son of bestselling author Michael Palmer, whose legacy lives on because Daniel’s been asked to continue his father’s oeuvre. Which means now two of Daniel’s novels are being released at the same time.
MERCY is the second Michael Palmer medical thriller Daniel’s written in the tradition of his late father. In it, Dr. Julie Devereux is an outspoken advocate for the right to die—until a motorcycle accident leaves her fiancé, Sam Talbot, a quadriplegic. While Sam begs to end his life, Julie sees hope in a life together. But then Sam suddenly dies from an unusual heart defect, one seen only in those under extreme stress. It appears that Sam was literally scared to death. As Julie investigates similar cases, she finds a frightening pattern, and becomes the target of disturbing threats. As Julie discovers more cases, the threats escalate, until she is accused of a mercy killing herself. To clear her name she must track down whoever is behind these mysterious deaths, but someone has decided that killing Julie is the only way to stop her.
In FORGIVE ME Angie DeRose is a private investigator in Virginia, working to find and rescue endangered runaways. In the wake of her mother’s death, Angie makes a life-altering discovery. Hidden in her parents’ attic is a photograph of a little girl with a hand-written message on the back: “May God forgive me.” Angie doesn’t know what it means. Could she have a sister she never knew about? Angie sets out to learn the fate of the girl in the photo. But the lies she unearths drag the past into the present. Everything she holds dear is threatened by the repercussions of one long-ago choice, and an enemy who will kill to keep a secret hidden forever.
Beyond writing thrillers, Palmer is a lifelong Red Sox fan, and lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children where he is hard at work on his next novel. Palmer has kindly agreed to share his thoughts on his two new books, his writing process, and what it means to be carrying on his father’s work.
FORGIVE ME seems to have a very personal theme. Did the story arise from a personal experience or did you snatch it from the reality of today’s society?
Angie DeRose’s search for a runaway girl named Nadine Jessup coincides with her quest to identify a girl in a photograph she finds hidden among the mementos in her parents’ attic.
What makes this book personal for me is my connection to the runaway girl. To my surprise, during the writing process, Nadine took over the story. I wanted her storyline to convey the danger facing all runaways, but the horror of her ordeal proved tough to convey. I did not want to write anything too graphic for my readers or myself. At the same time, I wanted to be faithful to the stories of the real-life victims of these crimes. Nadine herself showed me the answer: a journal of her captivity, giving the reader access to her private thoughts and fears. The question was whether I could meet the challenge. I’m a 40-something-year-old man. What do I know about being a teenage girl in such a terrible predicament?
As I began to write, however, Nadine Jessup came alive. I wrote the pages of her journal as quickly as if Nadine had penned them herself. The result is a story different from anything I’ve done before, and I believe Nadine’s journal is what makes this book special.
Extraordinary Characters Hiding Among the Ordinary
The place is Texas. We find ourselves in a small town, and by that I mean a very small town. One streetlight, a diner, a few stores. It’s quiet. And the people … well, this is a Charlaine Harris book, and the people are definitely not what they seem. It doesn’t stay quiet for long.
Harris’s latest book, NIGHT SHIFT, is the third in her new series. These exciting mysteries revolve around the residents of Midnight, Texas: an Internet psychic named Manfred who may or may not be a real psychic; Fiji, a woman who runs a New Age witchcraft shop for a good reason; a gay couple, Chuy and Joe; a pawnshop owner, Bobo; another couple, Lemuel and Olivia, who scare people for all kinds of reasons, among them Lemuel has been on the planet for several centuries. A reverend, running the local chapel and pet cemetery, who keeps strange hours.
Harris, who has been penning mysteries for 30 years, famously wrote the Southern Vampire Mystery series, aka the Sookie Stackhouse books, Sookie being a waitress who’s actually a telepath, dating a string of hot supernatural males in Bon Temps, Louisiana. The mystery series has been released in over 30 languages. In 2008, HBO adapted the books for the hit series True Blood, which became a pop culture phenomenon and ignited a vampire-worship craze. The TV series ended in 2014.
Harris’s new book series has been adapted for a possible NBC series. The pilot for Midnight, Texas, starring Francois Arnaud, Dylan Bruce, Jason Lewis, Arielle Kebel and Parisa Fitz-Henley, is unscheduled. Will it reach True Blood-level fame? Much too soon to tell.
Harris took time to chat with The Big Thrill about her career, which has had, as far as I can tell, very few dull moments.
I loved NIGHT SHIFT. It’s a good mystery, a real page-turner, a lot of action and a very strong romance, and also, I have to say, it scared me. This book is really creepy.
Oh, yay. I love to be creepy.
I’m struck by how you’re able to balance all these different elements in your books: the mystery, the romance, the supernatural world, but also the real-world relatability of the characters’ daily lives. I have to ask: How do you manage this?
Well, it started with the Sookie books. I thought, why don’t I try blending different elements to see if I can come up with something that is new, and maybe not totally unique to me but almost unique to me, and reach out to readers who enjoy this kind of thing, the way that I do?
I do too! And in the Midnight, Texas books, you accomplish that mix and you’re trying some new things.
After I wrote the Sookie books, I thought I’ve been writing first-person feminine for so many years, and I love it, and I think it’s probably my strongest position, but I was ready for a change. I felt like you’ve been drinking champagne for all these years, you should probably try some beer!
So I thought, I want to write an ensemble book from multiple points of view and some of them will be men. You stagnate if you don’t challenge yourself. I thought if I switched the points of view, I could tell the story more fully and maybe readers would find one character they would identify with more than others and they would follow that character through.
Writing the men was a real challenge because I wanted to be convincing. I thought, “I should be able to do this, I’ve been married to a man for 38 years.” OK, so I decided: Simplify, simplify, simplify.
What do you mean?
Simplify their emotional reactions. For men may have as complex a reaction to a series of events as women do. But it seems that mostly they boil it down.
Lemuel is so unlike other men and really the human race. I admire how well you can write characters who aren’t human.
Writing the fae in the Sookie books was really hard for that reason. No Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian tradition, they are just themselves. As a writer, it is hard to divorce yourself from those traditions. Lemuel is very much that way. He is an antique too, in our modern world.
You are slowly revealing their supernatural abilities throughout the three books. How difficult is it to hold back?
I thought it would be more interesting if I could trickle out the weirdness. A little bit here, a little bit there. It’s more fun for me. In the series, their supernatural abilities will be there from the beginning, which is very interesting. The director is amazing, he is the one who directed the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
With True Blood, I watched the entire series. For me, it was most enjoyable in the early seasons, when they stuck closer to the books.
That’s certainly a valid point of view. [Laughs] I loved the series, and I thought it was interesting throughout, but I prefer a more personal story rather than the more politicized story the series ended up telling.
Given a choice between a Bill Compton who’s come up with a cool Internet vampire directory and a Bill Compton who’s the ultimate immortal, a monster covered with blood screaming because he was anointed by stone age Lillith, I don’t know, I choose Directory Bill. I liked Bon Temps.
I did too! When I wrote the books, I kept it anchored on Sookie. [Producer] Alan Ball saw a bigger picture and that’s the way he went. It all made for great television.
Do you think that the media circus over the male stars—Stephen Moyer, Alexander Skarsgard and Joe Manganiello—took over the show?
Hmmmm. I certainly know that the reaction to the final book, which was just overwhelmingly horrible, was due to Alexander Skarsgard worship.
OK, I read the final book. I’m aware of the controversy. And I have to say I don’t get it. Sookie ending up with Sam, not Eric or Bill, made a lot of sense. That was set up in the first fifteen minutes of the pilot!
Exactly. I could see the way the wind was blowing through the last two books. And I thought “Uh oh, uh oh.” They are not ready for this, probably because of the television show. Not that it’s their fault. Alexander can’t be anything but wonderful and excellent and sexy. It made my job harder—which is, again, not their problem—and I did everything but draw a runway to what I was going to do: “It’s NOT going to end the way you think it is.” And still there were these people who were massively unhappy with me. They really were. Oh it was terrible.
I enjoyed your talk with Karin Slaughter at Thrillerfest last year. When I heard that you had to take steps because of the fans who obsessively wanted to touch you, I felt concerned, however.
It’s weird, or maybe it’s not. Of course I always loved being on top of the list. Who doesn’t? And I felt really proud of what I was producing. I didn’t feel I was pandering to base emotions. I felt the writing was good. At the same time there was a lot that came with that which was very disconcerting and uncomfortable. And sometimes scary. I don’t miss that. Sure I would love to be No. 1 on the list every time. But as far as making my life simpler and more pleasant, my life is a lot simpler and more pleasant now.
With Fiji, she’s a real person, she’s very relatable, and she has this extra power, like Sookie, but the difference is that Sookie was gorgeous. She was very hot. While Fiji is a little overweight. She has a negative body image. I find that courageous.
I thought, why invent another beautiful woman? Why not someone who’s more human? There were so many things telling me to make her a person who has issues that keep her from living her full life, which I believe she is coming into in the third book.
I feel that in the Midnight books, the characters’ friendships are a bigger part of the plots than in the Sookie series.
Thank you! I like to think I’m learning something. I’ve been at this for such a long time. But I don’t want to use the same bag of tricks every time and I do want to improve.
I understand you wrote a poem about a supernatural being when you were a child, so you’ve always been drawn to this part of the imagination.
Very true. My first series, though, the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, were conventional mysteries, no supernatural in them at all. But as time went on, and I stayed stuck on the midlist, which is a fine place to be and I was grateful, but I guess I found I was ambitious. I kept thinking, “I’ve got to go up, I’ve got to climb a few steps up the ladder.” I set a goal for myself. I thought, “If I can make $70,000 a year, if I can just make that.” I wanted to change my career. I sat and stared into space and thought about her and built her from a littler germ of an idea to a bigger idea to a bigger idea. Until I had her world set in my head. At first, nobody liked it, it got turned down over and over for two years. Finally due to Laurell K. Hamilton’s success at Ace, a junior editor at Ace took it. It was just instantly successful out of the gate. It was a delightful change for me. Also I felt like I was vindicated; I’d found something I could go to town with and not restrain myself.
When the series made its debut, it was a big hit right away too, not least because of the nudity.
On True Blood, at first, honestly I was shocked. I don’t know what else to say. There’s something so different about writing a sex scene which might be two paragraphs because I’m not a how-to writer and seeing it. There’s a big visceral difference. I thought, “Oh my God, we’re going to have to move.”
I’ve always lived in small, conservative towns. I thought it was amazing no one was coming up to me in Walmart and saying, “You devil woman!” I found out after we moved—we live in Texas now—that the couple who bought our house, the woman advised them to have it exorcised. “You don’t want your little daughter growing up in that house.” I was flattered. I never thought of myself as the epitome of evil.
What led you to Texas for the new books?
When I was a child, I grew up in Mississippi but my mama was from Texas, and every summer she would take me and my brother to Rocksprings, Texas. It’s on the Edwards Plateau. It is nowhere. We would spend part of the summer there because my grandparents owned a hotel and my mother wold go to help out during rodeo season. All her sisters would come too. Every room in the hotel was busy, everything was full to bursting, and a lot of people were drunk, and it was a real challenge for my mom. I realize that now. The culture was so different, the landscape was so different. It made a big impression on me. I was thinking of doing something new after Sookie, I was so excited to do that. I decided, why don’t I draw on that part of my life and write a book set in a place that remote and that forbidding? First I had the place, then I thought, well what if there were one stoplight? Gradually the book began to populate itself.
I’m not sure it’s recognized what a good action writer you are. Any time there’s a fight in your novels, it’s written with originality and so tense. I read that you were into karate for a while. Does that help?
Well, I have given it up. For a long time I was also an avid weightlifter. I enjoyed my karate class, though I was never very good. We used to act out our action sequences in class. I’ve kept that visual imagination of acting things out, so I picture it all in my head and how people would have to move to achieve the next step in the conflict. I get a lot of pleasure from that.
Thank you so much for this interview! I’ve really enjoyed it.
Nancy Bilyeau is the editor of The Big Thrill. She has worked at ‘Rolling Stone,’ ‘Entertainment Weekly’ and ‘InStyle.’ Her historical thriller trilogy is published by Touchstone Books.
Finding the Monstrous in the Ordinary
The best thrillers begin with ordinary, even joyous events and explore how one unfortunate turn can threaten everything that a person holds dear. And “best thriller” describes Lisa Scottoline’s compelling new novel MOST WANTED, in which a couple’s dream—to have a child—becomes a nightmare, placing at risk a woman’s unborn child, her marriage, and ultimately, her life.
Christine Nilsson is a devoted school teacher and a loving wife. She and her husband, Marcus, desperately want a baby, but Marcus suffers from fertility problems. After much soul-searching and research, they decide to use a sperm donor, and Christine becomes pregnant. Then, after two months, she discovers that her donor might be a serial killer. Against her husband’s wishes, Christine embarks on a quest to discover the truth about her unborn child, in the course of which she finds herself at great personal risk and is forced to confront her darkest fears.
MOST WANTED is powerful not only because of its riveting, suspenseful story but also because of its sensitive treatment of important ethical and moral issues: What should you do if the biological father of your unborn child were a psychopathic killer? How could you reconcile keeping the baby with your husband’s distress at raising the child of a possible serial killer? What role should the legal system play in resolving these issues? Scottoline treats these concerns with sensitivity while deftly infusing this emotional story with humor that provides the perfect counterbalance to the serious, often harrowing obstacles that Christine must overcome in her search for answers.
Scottoline has kindly agreed to share her thoughts on MOST WANTED, her writing process, and her future projects.
One of the most hotly debated issues among fertility ethicists is how to balance the need for sperm-donor anonymity against the risk of genetic diseases. Compounding the problem, many psychiatrists believe that a person’s is rooted in genetics—and fertility clinics can’t always accurately screen for temperament and personality. What inspired you to write a novel centered on this important subject?
I love novels that involve the complexity of moral and ethical issues, such as you just described, even better than I might have! And this idea just came to me one day, because I was thinking about how much my daughter means to me, and I’m a single mother with only one child. And I thought what if I couldn’t have had her, and then what if I used a sperm donor, and then what if my donor turned out to be a suspected serial killer? It was as crazy a what-if as I could imagine, but also one that would involve a lot of moral, ethical, and emotional complexity, so I got busy!
Lessons From the Master of the Twist
By A.J. Colucci
Crime writer Harlan Coben is arguably today’s Master of the Who-Done-It. The author is known for leaving a trail of breadcrumbs along the way to fool readers into thinking they know the ending when they don’t. FOOL ME ONCE is the latest novel to demonstrate his skill at the double-twist. It grabs you from page one, and tosses your sensibilities around like a ragdoll, until the shocking end. I started the book early morning, broke for a quick lunch and closed it around midnight. I’m still not sure what my family ate for dinner. If you read Coben, you know what I’m talking about. Since his breakout novel, TELL NO ONE, he’s been churning out bestsellers one after another, including the critically acclaimed Myron Bolitar series.
In FOOL ME ONCE we meet Major Maya Stern, an Army pilot home from the war. Her husband has been murdered right in front of her in a robbery gone wrong. Left to care for her daughter alone, she sets up a nanny cam—and sees the unthinkable. There on the footage is her husband, Joe, playing with her daughter. The shock of seeing Joe on video sends Maya on the mission of her life, searching for an answer to a bitter question: Is her husband alive and not to be trusted, or is it herself she can’t trust? And the twists keep coming. Four months ago, while Maya was in Kuwait, her sister Claire was also killed, and now there seems to be a link between the deaths of Joe and Clair.
Strong female protagonists seem to be trending more than ever among thriller authors, and Maya is refreshingly gender-neutral. Fearless, dogged and unsentimental, “Maya” would have been just as believable as “Harry.” For Coben, the character came to mind on a trip abroad.
“I was fortunate enough to be one of ITW’s authors who got to travel overseas on a USO tour,” he said, referring to Operation Thriller. “It was a tremendous honor, and while I was on a certain European base, I met a female Air Force pilot who was just so kick-ass. She’s nothing like Maya, but I think the seed got planted right there and then.” In general he finds that creating characters is an intuitive process. “It is very hard to describe how it happens. You think about their experiences, their background, their culture, their relationships – and something sort of comes to the surface.”
What Happens If Our Government Takes Surveillance One Step Further
By Josie Brown
An interview with author Barry Eisler is always timely and provocative, to say the least. A prolific author, this former CIA operative and attorney has landed on numerous bestseller lists with novels based on his iconic assassin anti-hero, John Rain. He has won both Bouchercon’s Barry Award and Mystery Inc.’s Gumshoe Award.
Those who read his blog know that Eisler is a staunch public advocate of human rights—a topic covered in his latest thriller, THE GOD’S EYE VIEW—as well as authors’ rights. Since both are hot topics for those of us who write (and read) thrillers, yes, you’ll want to read what he has to say.
When, and how, did the idea for THE GOD’S EYE VIEW come to you as a plot device?
I’m pretty obsessive about post-9/11 government overreach—torture (“enhanced interrogation”); indefinite imprisonment without charge, trial, or conviction (“detention”); execution of American citizens without any recognizable due process (“targeted killings”); and, of course, suspicion-free, bulk population surveillance (“data collection”).
As I follow these trends, I like to read between the lines, grappling with what’s being reported while imagining what isn’t. So when I was reading the news stories based on Edward Snowden’s whistle-blowing, I remembered one of the things they taught me at the CIA—that sometimes it pays to cover up the commission of a serious crime by confessing to a lesser one. The programs Snowden revealed were appalling, yes, but what would be the even worse ones, the ones that would leak later, if at all?
My answer to that question—informed by the abuses of the J. Edgar Hoover years, the history of COINTELPRO, the allegations of NSA whistle-blower Russ Tice, and most of all by Snowden’s revelations themselves—became the foundation for THE GOD’S EYE VIEW, with an all-seeing surveillance state the novel’s milieu. In fact, Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon—the circular prison in which a central watchtower would simultaneously monitor all the prisoners—became a kind of motif for the novel.
Crime Fiction, the Reality of Evil, and Some Really Great Music
There came a time, not long ago, when Ian Rankin, 55, decided he needed a break. He’d written nearly 30 novels and short-story collections, many of them reaching the top of the bestseller lists. In fact, it’s been estimated that Rankin is responsible for 10 percent of all crime fiction sales in the UK. He’s won four Dagger Awards from the Crime Writers’ Association and snared the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The man who describes himself as a “frustrated rock star” bought a house in Edinburgh in the same neighborhood as Alexander McCall Smith and, for a time, J.K. Rowling.
But wealth and literary awards can’t protect against losses. After a series of friends’ deaths, Rankin, “feeling knackered and shattered,” and his wife, Miranda, decided in 2014 to take time off from the book-a-year existence and travel. Relax. Do the crossword. Pick grapes.
Something took root during that year off; the next novel Rankin wrote is one of his finest to date, EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD. Published last November in the UK to acclaim and No. 1 bestseller status, the novel is poised for North American release. Bringing together the protagonists of his two mystery series, Detective Inspector John Rebus and Internal Affairs Investigator Malcolm Fox, Rankin tells a darkening story of murder, rivalry, and betrayal, marked with moments of unexpected forgiveness–and characters’ uncovering actions of unfathomable cruelty and corruption. In a telephone interview, when asked if EVEN DOGS IN THE WILD has a theme of morality, Rankin doesn’t disagree. However, he says, in his mind the novel is even more about “mortality.”
“It’s about having to pay for past sins,” Rankin says. “I don’t know if I understood it myself at first, but the book is about family ties and the passing of a legacy.”
Rankin’s work has been translated into 22 languages. For a novelist, he says, “Crime fiction is a way to ask, Why do we as human beings keep doing terrible things to each other?” Evil is a concept that Rankin returns to again and again, and in different mediums. It’s not a matter of a professional novelist studying character behavior to flesh out the next bestseller. Rankin’s thinking on the concept resembles more a medieval monk poring over philosophy and brooding over its implications in his Carthusian cell–albeit one that serves late-night whiskey. In 2002 he hosted “Ian Rankin’s Evil Thoughts” on Channel Four, saying, “I make my living thinking about murder, torture, corruption. Other people go to work and deal with markets or construction. ” In the end, Rankin says now, it’s the story of Jekyll and Hyde, written by another Scotsman, that he thinks may come closest to explaining evil in its essential duality. Indeed, in Even Dogs in the Wild, some of the most complex passages belong to “Big Ger” Cafferty, once the most dangerous crime lord of Edinburgh–and Rebus’s nemesis–who is now an old man rendered vulnerable.
She’s been called the “female Robert Ludlum” and the “Queen of Espionage.” She’s broken barriers for women in fiction, and co-founded one of the world’s leading organizations for writers. And, oh yeah, she writes kick-ass New York Times bestsellers.
You guessed it, she’s Gayle Lynds, and this month, she’s back with a vengeance with THE ASSASSINS (St. Martin’s Press, June 30).
On the heels of her smash hit The Book of Spies, this latest story is about what happens when two spooks get caught in the crossfire of a business dispute—one involving six of the world’s most deadly assassins. Part heist story, part espionage thriller—one hundred percent adrenaline—THE ASSASSINS should go down as Lynds’s best novel to date. And that’s saying something given that her work is on Publishers Weekly’s list of the top ten spy thrillers of all time.
What’s special about Lynds, though, is that when she’s not crafting page-turning thrillers or hiking in beautiful Maine, she’s helping aspiring authors. She’s a true writer’s writer, and it is no surprise that the International Thriller Writers, the organization she co-founded, carries forward her spirit of kindness, support, and mentorship.
Lynds graciously agreed to answer a few questions about THE ASSASSINS and her life and career.
Last year, fans of Steven James’s Chess series saw the end of an era when he closed an eight-book story arc with Checkmate. Named a Suspense Magazine Best Book of 2014, Checkmate allowed FBI Special Agent Patrick Bowers to face a longtime nemesis and brought a satisfying conclusion to the series that began nearly a decade ago with The Pawn. James, who Publishers Weekly has called a “master storyteller at the peak of his game,” thought it was time, and he had no shortage of other projects, including his popular Jevin Banks series.
But Patrick Bowers wouldn’t let go.
Readers wanted more of the FBI environmental criminologist who James once described as “cool under pressure, a little dark, a little haunted.” So did James’s publisher. And even as James said good-bye, he told The Big Thrill in 2014 that, “although I tapped out the bad guys for this cycle of books, I still have lots of ideas for cases that Agent Bowers could work on.”
So began EVERY CROOKED PATH, a prequel to the Chess series (actually, it covers the period after Opening Moves but before The Pawn). This time, Bowers is hunting the worst kind of monster—child sexual predators. As James explained, it’s “the story of how Patrick Bowers gets his start in New York City. It’s the first book in this prequel series and has one of his most complex plots of any of my novels. It’s a story about the lure of evil, obsession, courage, and the bounds of morality, all borne out in a taut, psychological thriller.”
Was he concerned about setting the story around catching child predators? “As a parent, it was both difficult and necessary for me to write this book. We can’t turn a blind eye to the world we live in. In my books I never celebrate evil, I never make it look glamorous or attractive. Instead, I try to give people a window to see the world more clearly, and a mirror so we also see ourselves in a new light.” James’s only concern was that people might assume the book contains objectionable material and be scared off. “It doesn’t,” James said. “The story is honest but not exploitative. Since I share with readers what is really going on, I think this is my most important novel yet.” Already opening to stellar reviews, EVERY CROOKED PATH promises to be another success for Bowers and his creator.
Writing a Page-Turner Set to Haunting Music
By Dawn Ius
Story inspiration can come from anywhere—a news clipping, a random conversation with strangers, a slash of graffiti.
For international bestselling author Tess Gerritsen, the creative spark for her latest release, PLAYING WITH FIRE, struck while touring the centuries-old Venetian Ghetto. There, the story of Julia and Lorenzo came to her with such force, she composed a haunting piece of music that not only guided her in writing this novel, but also wove itself deep into the story’s theme.
The book centers on accomplished violinist Julia Ansdell, who discovers the “Incendio Waltz” in a darkened antique shop in Rome. But every time she plays the complex and unusual piece, it seems to inspire her young daughter to commit acts of violence.
“Usually we say that music soothes the savage beast,” Gerritsen says. “But in this case, it brings out the beast.”
Not that anyone believes Julia. Despite numerous incidents, Julia’s husband, her friends, doctors, and even her appointed therapist can’t understand how a toddler could hurt anyone, let alone her own mother.
To save her family—and perhaps her own sanity—Julia must uncover the origin of “Incendio.” Her journey takes her into the heart of Venice where she uncovers a dark secret that dates back to the horrors of World War II, and reveals the tragic love story of a 1940s Jewish violinist, Lorenzo Todesco.
Told in alternating past and present points of view from both Julia and Lorenzo, PLAYING WITH FIRE is a powerful thriller about love and music during some of history’s darkest moments. It is also unlike any of Gerritsen’s previous stand-alone thrillers or the novels within her popular “Rizzoli & Isles” series—a risk, perhaps, but one she felt compelled to take.
The Truth About Writing a Series: “Right Back to Square One”
There are series and then there are series. In 1982, Sue Grafton, a Kentucky-born writer with a fondness for Ross Macdonald, published A Is for Alibi. The novel introduced readers to Kinsey Millhone, a young female private investigator working in the fictional California town of Santa Teresa. As the books made their way through the alphabet, the mystery series attracted a growing, deeply loyal following and won Grafton multiple Anthony Awards and the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. One caveat: She has vowed to never option her books to Hollywood and made her children promise to do the same “or else I will come back and haunt them.”
Grafton’s W Is for Wasted, published in 2013, offered two plot lines: Kinsey discovering relatives she never knew existed after a homeless man is found dead, and a shady investigator named Pete Wolinsky trying a dangerous move to get a big payday. In this August’s release, X, Kinsey is on the trail of a possible art thief while dealing with the collateral damage of Pete’s tragic mistakes–and in so doing attracts the attention of a serial killer.
X has soared to the top of fiction bestseller lists, proving that Grafton’s passionate dedication to her writing is undiminished. In this frank, often funny, interview with The Big Thrill, she reveals what it takes to write her series.
Many novelists are dying to make it as screenwriters. And yet you were once a working screenwriter with a lot of credits and dying to quit that and get into fiction. What’s the story there?
I worked in Hollywood for 15 years. And I don’t play well with others. I don’t like anybody’s help. I was getting angrier and angrier. I knew they were ruining me. There is no use making a decision if four people after you will have their ideas. I thought, I have got to get out of here. I wrote A Is for Alibi as my way out, to dig my way under the wall. It took me five years to write that book. I wrote it for love. I had never done a mystery before. I felt like I don’t know what this is, but it feels good to me and I am my own boss again. I got paid $10,000 for that book. And here I am today. There you have it.
X is a suspenseful read and it is a fast read, but it’s also a deceptively complex novel. You have three strands running through the plot, all of a different tempo. There’s the investigation, the detecting, both a new case and the unfinished business of Pete Wolinsky’s. There are character-based comedic passages. At times, it almost feels like a caper. But in the climax of the book I was terrified. So on one page I was laughing, and on another I was shaking.
I liked having the three strands. It seemed like a piece of knitting where you’re weaving colors together, and I enjoy that. If I have one story to tell, I worry I will get stuck or bored. I want to have cutaways.
Insights From the Master of Seattle Menace
An acclaimed author of legal thrillers with his David Sloane series, Robert Dugoni decided to undertake a new challenge: a thriller featuring a woman, Seattle homicide detective Tracy Crosswhite. The result proved the adage “Change is good.” My Sister’s Grave became a No. 1 Amazon and New York Times best seller.
Tracy Crosswhite returns in Dugoni’s HER FINAL BREATH (Thomas & Mercer, September 15, 2015). Still scarred from the investigation into her sister’s 20-year-old murder, Crosswhite is drawn into an investigation of a string of homicides perpetrated by a serial killer known as The Cowboy. A stalker leaves a menacing message for Crosswhite, suggesting that the killer or a copycat could be targeting her personally. With clues scarce and more victims dying, Crosswhite realizes that the key to solving the murders may lie in a decade-old homicide investigation that others, including her boss, Captain Johnny Nolasco, would prefer to keep buried. The events that follow threaten to end Crosswhite’s career, and perhaps her life.
Robert Dugoni has served as an inspiration to aspiring writers as well as fledgling authors. His novels not only describe the conflict inherent in the legal system in a dramatic and understandable way but also portray complex characters unique to legal and crime fiction. His portrayal of the city of Seattle as setting—as almost another character in the story—is masterful.
I found HER FINAL BREATH just as compelling as My Sister’s Grave. What inspired you to move on from popular David Sloan and write this series?
Necessity is the mother of invention, and I needed a new series. I was leaving my publisher, and the David Sloane series was divided between two publishers. So I knew I had to do something original. It was daunting, but I’ve faced many challenges in my career and this one didn’t scare me. It was actually refreshing to be doing something new.
Tracy Crosswhite is a character I introduced briefly in the novel Murder One, a female homicide detective who was a former chemistry professor. Honestly, I had no idea who she was or where she came from, so I just started exploring her background more and more as I interviewed homicide detectives in Seattle and then a friend introduced me to single-action shooting competitions. She came to life. I knew she’d be perfect for a book needing a strong female protagonist, and I had an idea for a spin on an old legal adage that I thought would make a great twist. I don’t outline, but I also knew I wanted a wounded protagonist, someone who had lost someone very dear to them years before and from that came the relationship between Tracy and her sister, Sarah.
Why the Best-Selling Author Made a Point-of-View Switch
By E. M. Powell
It’s a brave author who does something radically different in a successful long-running series. But in DEVIL’S BRIDGE, the 17th outing for New York prosecutor Alex Cooper, Linda Fairstein does just that.
In this terrific, suspenseful read, things are definitely not going well for Alex. An escaped convicted rapist is stalking her, a trial is going south, and a hacker has potentially accessed her most secure information. The book takes a dramatic—and unexpected—swerve when Alex is kidnapped and the search is on to find her.
But we readers don’t know where she is, either. Instead, we must join Alex’s lover, Detective Mike Chapman, in his increasingly desperate search. This plot device brings the reader along as fellow investigator, trying to make sense out of information as it happens. Chapman’s frustration is contagious, as is his terror over what may be happening to the woman he cares for deeply. As I turned the pages, I kept expecting to get a glimpse of Alex’s ordeal—all of the previous books have been told from her point of view. Fairstein didn’t allow me that glimpse, however. I had to go through the mill with Chapman.
The police detective’s story is written with such confidence and skill that I was surprised to hear that Fairstein approached the project with some trepidation. She had the blessing of her editor, whom she approached after the launch of Terminal City (Alex Cooper No. 16). They agreed to keep it a secret, and so off went Fairstein to the dreaded blank screen. “I got a bit nervous as I tried to make the transition,” she says. “But I know Chapman as well as I know Coop, which I kept telling myself over and over.” Another factor helped: “For years, readers asked me at signings all over the country whether there are other things I would like to write. My first answer has always been to write one of the books in this series from Detective Mike Chapman’s perspective.”
In 1997, The Tenth Justice, the first novel Brad Meltzer published (and the second one he wrote) hit the bestseller list. Himself a recent grad of Columbia Law School, Meltzer wrote a book about a mistake made by a conscientious clerk for a Supreme Court Justice and the deepening crisis that unfolds from that mistake. This month, he publishes his tenth novel, THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW. It is a fast-paced, high-stakes thriller that begins with the discovery of a severed arm in the Rose Garden of the White House. At the center of the story is a nerdy National Archivist who holds his own among characters trained in violence and steeped in betrayal.
Meltzer’s stories are often about consequence and trust, with plot twists that leave a reader reeling. Yet the expectations he may be best at toppling are about himself. He leaped out of the box of legal-thriller writer early and crafted high-stakes suspense stories that draw on fascinating research revealing secret societies and hidden people and places that may seem too good to be true—yet often are. The line between truth and fiction is hard to pin down in a Brad Meltzer book. While turning out novels that reach the top of the New York Times bestseller list, he writes comic books, nonfiction about children’s heroes, and television series, and he hosts a television show called “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History.” He is also active in organizations promoting literacy in the state of Florida, where he lives with his wife and three children.
For The Big Thrill, Meltzer explains his character choices, shares his research approach and the secret to his daunting balancing act, and talks about the mistake he made early on that turned him into a more fearless writer.
The protagonist of THE PRESIDENT’S SHADOW is Beecher White, returning from The Fifth Assassin and The Inner Circle. When did you first realize that a young archivist would make an ideal main character?
When I met my first archivist. They just had all the nerdy goodness I wanted to give Beecher. And the real goal was: Can I build this hero whose superpower is just his brain? He couldn’t fight, couldn’t fire a gun. But he’s smarter than all of us. And didn’t feel the need to show you.
Throughout the book, you play with the reader’s perception of the personality and lifestyle of an archivist, a dedicated researcher. Is that part of your mission with these novels, to reveal how an archivist could be a new variety of action hero?
That’s just me telling the truth. Go to the National Archives. There’s a beautiful type there. I was just reporting what I saw. Bookish introverts with obsessive love for the arcane. In that, I found the archivists—and of course myself.
Before Jeffery Deaver became one of the most successful writers in the country, he was a journalist, a lawyer—and even a folk singer. But from the time he was in grade school, he knew that he wanted to write fiction. And not just any fiction—commercial, popular fiction. Books that kept readers up all night.
So, some thirty-five years ago, he decided it was time to give it a try. Deaver is the first to admit that his early novels didn’t sell as hoped. But he didn’t give up; he learned from his early work, honed his craft, and worked hard to become a master storyteller.
In the mid-1990s, Deaver released The Bone Collector, which featured quadriplegic protagonist, Lincoln Rhyme. The book has been named one of the best thrillers of all time, and went on to become a feature film starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie.
As for Deaver, today he’s an A-list bestselling author with more than thirty novels to his name, and more literary nominations and awards than you can count.
While many writers might rest on their Lincoln-Rhyme-laurels, Deaver has a broad and impressive body of work. He writes stand alones, short stories, and even penned a James Bond novel, an honor given his love of the iconic character. What’s more, Deaver is an innovator. In The October List, he told a thrilling story—in reverse. In XO, he wrote songs for an album that accompanies the book. And in The Starling Project, he wrote an original audio play. Perhaps publishers should call him Midas—everything he touches seems to turn to gold.
This month, Deaver releases the highly-anticipated SOLITUDE CREEK, the fourth in his acclaimed Kathryn Dance series. The author recently answered some questions for The Big Thrill:
SOLITUDE CREEK is the fourth in the Kathryn Dance series, following the amazing, XO. What’s in store for Dance this time around?
Oh, mayhem, chaos, and terror, of course! In this novel, Kathryn gets busted down to “buck private” for making a serious mistake during an interrogation; she’s relegated to civil work for the CBI, like checking health certificates and bottle deposit receipts. But you can’t keep a strong woman down and she secretly runs an investigation on a villain obsessed with turning people’s panic into a weapon.
The Art of Being True
By Dawn Ius
New York Times bestselling author J. A. Jance can trace her love of literature all the way back to elementary school where she was introduced to the magical world of Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz series.
She was, of course, fascinated by the stories, but even then, as an impressionable second-grade student in Mrs. Spangler’s class, Jance sensed “the author” behind the curtain and quickly realized that that is who she wanted to be—the person putting the words on the page.
Since 1982, Jance has been doing just that, with her latest thriller COLD BETRAYAL marking her fiftieth novel. More than twenty million copies of her books are in print, and they have been translated into eighteen languages—an impressive resume for any author.
Perhaps even more so for Jance, whose initial start as an author was met with daunting resistance.
While her passion for writing sparked at an early age, that flame was extinguished by her first husband, an alcoholic who declared that there would be only one writer in the house—and she wasn’t it.
For years, Jance penned poetry during the dark of night, hiding it away in a strong box so her husband wouldn’t catch her doing what, by his estimation, she shouldn’t be doing.
“When I wrote poetry, I thought I was being ‘true to my art,’” she says. “Years later, after my husband died—of chronic alcoholism at age forty-two—I had to go into the strong box for documents. And that’s where I found those old yellowed pieces of notebook paper and the poetry I’d jotted on them.”
Reading them back was like seeing her life on instant replay, and Jance suddenly understood, she hadn’t really been true to her art at all.
Instead, “I had been true to being a writer and using words to grapple with the essential issues of my life.”
By Josie Brown
C.J. Box’s novels have been lauded by readers and critics alike for their complex plots, true-to-life characters, and his stark lyrical depiction of the New West.
His latest novel—ENDANGERED—is no exception. Box’s soft-spoken but hard-hitting protagonist, Joe Pickett, is back—and this time, it’s personal. When a young woman found beaten to near death turns out to be Joe’s stepdaughter, Joe’s gut tells him that the perpetrator isn’t the man in custody, but her boyfriend, rodeo champion Dallas Cates. Proving it means facing off with the whole Cates clan, who will do anything to protect Dallas.
What does it take to write books that grab readers both by the hearts and throats? The Big Thrill recently interviewed Box to find out.
Joe Pickett’s relationship with his family—his wife, his daughters—is somewhat complex. How does this help you, the writer and creator, grow and mature the characters, and the series as a whole?
The novels take place in real time. In the first, Open Season, Joe’s oldest daughter Sheridan is seven years old and she’s a major character in the book. In ENDANGERED, she’s a sophomore in college. Over the span of the novels, his three daughters have grown up and are still growing and changing. Joe and his wife Marybeth mature and change as well. I think (hope) this keeps the series fresh both for me and for readers. Things that happen in one book impact the characters in the next. I try to keep it so the reader doesn’t have to completely suspend disbelief from book to book.
Let’s talk about your protagonist Joe, who, for those who haven’t read your wonderful series, happens to be a game warden. Why do you feel he resonates with so many readers—including city dwellers?
Joe Pickett is a game warden. That means he’s a state employee charged with administering the fishing and hunting rules and regulations for his district, which happens to be 2,500 square miles. In my novels, just as in real life, Wyoming game wardens get involved not only with outdoor situations but also with local law enforcement and federal law enforcement agencies. Local game wardens participate in resource, landowner, and environmental issues. Game wardens are independent, heavily armed, and they rarely have backup when they get into tough situations. They patrol via pickup truck, horses, ATVs, boats, and snowmobiles. Rarely does a game warden encounter a citizen in the field who isn’t armed. Therefore, they have to learn to deal with situations in a more nuanced way than calling in the S.W.A.T. team.