Tackling a Story That’s a Little Too Timely
[Note: The following piece contains spoilers for the Grant County series, which concluded in 2007 with Beyond Reach.]
It’s been 13 years since readers first met Will Trent, the painfully awkward, wryly funny Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who made his debut in Karin Slaughter’s twisty 2006 thriller Triptych. He was almost a background player in that book, but he’s gone on to become Slaughter’s most popular character, headlining a series that reaches its ninth installment this month with THE LAST WIDOW.
Will, a six-foot-three square peg who favors three-piece suits in the sweltering Atlanta heat, trades sandwiches for haircuts from a morgue assistant and writes notes on his calendar reminding him to be emotionally vulnerable with his girlfriend every Monday, isn’t exactly cut from the same cloth as the Jack Reachers of the thriller world. In fact, he was specifically engineered to provide a contrast to another of Slaughter’s popular characters: Grant County police chief Jeffrey Tolliver, a swaggering, charming college football star whose jarring death ended Slaughter’s inaugural series.
“I didn’t want to just create a character who was Jeffrey but blond and living in Atlanta,” Slaughter says. “And so I really gave a lot of thought to Will Trent. Triptych was the book right before the one where I killed Jeffrey, and I planned that deliberately and I wanted him to kind of be on background because I wanted to sneak it in that I was going to give you a new series character.”
The Fine Line Between
Psychological Thriller and Horror
In Riley Sager’s LOCK EVERY DOOR, a young woman, struggling with grief after a tragic loss, accepts a rare opportunity to move into an elegant, Gothic-style Manhattan apartment building. She’s warned about the building’s grim history, which includes a string of grisly deaths and whispers of occult activity, but she shrugs off those concerns and sets up house among the building’s eccentric, secretive residents. At first she can’t believe her good luck, but she slowly becomes convinced that something unimaginably sinister is going on in the building. Others dismiss her concerns, leaving her to root out the truth on her own. What she finds threatens her sanity, her bodily autonomy, and ultimately her life.
If that all sounds a lot like Rosemary’s Baby, Sager can tick another item off his bucket list.
“I’ve been a fan of both the book and the movie since I was about 14, and it was a dream of mine to write my own version of a similar story,” says Sager, who first fell in love with the thriller genre when he read his sister’s copy of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None in the seventh grade—not long before he discovered Ira Levin’s devilish classic. “I was drawn to the idea of this young woman in this beautiful, glamorous apartment building, and something really sinister going on there. Who can she trust, and how is she going to get out of it?”
Mastering the Thriller Craft
By Dawn Ius
In the opening scene of John Sandford’s new thriller NEON PREY, Deese—a thin, ropy-muscled “aggressive orangutan” of a man—lightly brushes extra virgin olive oil on two thin steaks and barbecues them over peach coals. For him, cooking is a form of meditation, a distraction from his job as a contract killer—and not surprisingly, this book’s formidable villain.
What may come as a surprise for some, though, is that Deese isn’t your average assassin—and those steaks weren’t carved from any old domestic farm animal. Deese is a cannibal, as impressive and terrifying as another literary people-eater that Sandford acknowledges he thought about before writing NEON PREY.
That cannibal is, of course, Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter, and while the two literary villains share a somewhat disturbing culinary affliction, they couldn’t be more different.
“I’d never had a cannibal as a villain, and villains are, of course, the key to thriller novels. Thinking about Hannibal, though, I decided to go in an entirely different direction,” Sandford says. “Hannibal was flatly nuts: he ate people because he liked to eat people and would eat a human in preference to, say, a nice 16-ounce Kansas beefsteak.”
Not so with Deese. He eats parts of people because he’s a serious barbecue cook—connoisseurs take note of a drool-worthy recipe on Page 1—and he happens to have the meat on hand. (Pun intended.)
“In other words, you could say he was simply practical, rather than out-and-out drooling crazy,” Sandford says. “Of course, he was that, too, but that wasn’t what drove his cannibalism.”
It is, however, what puts US Marshal—and recurring Prey series character—Lucas Davenport on his trail.
An Overnight Success, 13 Years in the Making
Considering that few readers had heard of Liv Constantine before the stunning success of 2017’s The Last Mrs. Parrish, you’d be forgiven for calling the writing duo an overnight success. But you’d also be in for a gentle correction. Though Mrs. Parrish was their first thriller, sisters Lynne and Valerie Constantine have been publishing together (and fighting their way through the query trenches) since their women’s fiction debut, Circle Dance, hit shelves in 2004—a cool 13 years before Mrs. Parrish turned them into book-world celebrities.
So if success came overnight, no one told Lynne and Valerie. They continued to write books, both together and separately, as they honed their craft and learned the business of publishing. Lynne finished a solo effort, The Veritas Deception, and completed another manuscript with Valerie (Black-Eyed Susans) before the sisters began work on the collaboration that would launch them into the stratosphere. They attended conferences such as ThrillerFest, where they met agents and found like-minded writers to cheer them on, collected the requisite rejection letters, and, above all, kept writing until they finally signed with their dream agent, who sold Mrs. Parrish to Harper just six days after submission.
Harper’s enthusiasm for the manuscript proved well founded. A nod from Reese Witherspoon’s book club jetted Mrs. Parrish onto dozens of bestseller and must-read lists, and suddenly Liv Constantine was the talk of the thriller world. Nearly two years after its release, Mrs. Parrish is still making headlines: on April 16 of this year, Deadline announced that Amazon Studios had acquired the book for series development—news that broke just a few days after trade journals reported that Harper had paid seven figures for the duo’s next two novels, on top of a separate deal for a pair of solo thrillers from Lynne.
Weaving the Hidden History
of a Girl Most Likely
By Alex Segura
If you’re a fan of hardboiled fiction or comics, the name Max Allan Collins is a familiar one. His CV is loaded with enough awards and accolades to make Meryl Streep blush. He’s written shelves of prose and lengthy runs starring characters like Dick Tracy and Batman. With a list of accomplishments that can be counted in miles, you’d think the veteran writer would settle into a comfortable routine, using the handful of tools and tricks he’s honed over decades to continue to create engaging and compelling narratives.
Well, you’d be wrong.
Collins’s latest, GIRL MOST LIKELY, is unlike any of his previous novels—except in one respect: it’s an addictive, propulsive read that lingers with the reader, loaded with the kind of thrilling, memorable characters that appear almost fully-formed. The protagonist of GIRL MOST LIKELY is Krista Larson, a woman in her late 20s who’s made a bit of history as the nation’s youngest police chief. As the top cop of a small Midwest town, Krista boasts a fine, blue blood pedigree: her father was a detective himself. While the job of small-town police chief can be boring on the busiest days, Krista’s routines get derailed soon enough.
The Jack and Jill You’re Looking For
I have a rule: I read every book I blurb. The problem is that I write three books a year and have five kids—time is short.
That was the problem I had with LIARS’ PARADOX—I knew I was late to blurb it, but because I have loved everything else Taylor Stevens has written, I thought I’d just read the first chapter or two.
I brought the book to my daughter’s softball practice one night and one chapter led to … well, finishing half the book in those three hours, rushing home, telling the kids they were on their own for dinner, grabbing a glass of wine, and jumping into my reading chair to finish the novel—no interruptions allowed, on pain of severe punishment.
LIARS’ PARADOX is that good.
It’s fun, violent, fast-paced, and original. To say, “I couldn’t put the book down,” is somewhat trite because everyone says that about a good thriller. Except, I literally could not put the book down until I read every page.
I think every author, on occasion, reads a book and thinks Damn. I wish I’d written that. Such was LIARS’ PARADOX for me.
Discovering the Secrets of a Legend
While it may seem that the vampire novel has been drained of every conceivable drop of blood, the truth is, the Undead can rise and walk the earth, becoming more Undead than ever before—in the right authorial hands.
DRACUL, co-written by J. D. Barker and Dacre Stoker, infuses the classic story of fighting to defeat a terrifying vampire with a clutch of finely drawn characters and eerie, imaginative scenarios, drawing on little-known facts about the real Bram Stoker. The novel bears little resemblance to high-school hangouts or fanged erotica. Using Stoker’s own epistolary device, DRACUL sets out chilling mysteries and murders that create a read of mounting suspense. Library Journal wrote in a starred review: “A strong pick for fans of classic Gothic tales, such as Dracula, but also good for anyone who appreciates gripping historical novels.”
“I sort of see this one as a thriller with vampires,” explains Barker, best known for the bestseller The Fourth Monkey, which has been described as Se7en meets The Silence of the Lambs. “It has a horror element to it, but it reads more like a thriller.”
DRACUL is also a thriller laced with an amazing number of facts about Stoker, his family, and the research he conducted to write Dracula, published in 1897. Stoker’s having had a sickly childhood is made ingenious use of, for example. “I love the idea of fact and fiction blending together, so we wanted to incorporate as much of that as we could,” Barker says.
Exploring the State Between Asleep and Awake
By Dawn Ius
“Between the dreams of night and day, there is not so great a difference.”
The great philosopher Carl Jung may not have been talking specifically about hypnagogia—the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep—but the quote hit home for Lisa Unger, providing the foundational research for her chilling new release, UNDER MY SKIN.
Perhaps a more apt title has never been created. From the moment we are introduced to Poppy—a woman on the hunt for her husband’s killer—we are immersed in a world of darkness and a tale of suspense that indeed gets under your skin, forcing you to try and parse what is real, and what is nothing more than a hallucination, a dizzying blend of reality and dream.
“There have been other unreliable narrators in my books,” Unger says. “But even I was unsure from time to time what was real in this novel.”
Such intense character immersion can sometimes pose a risk, but while Unger admits she did worry that the book would read as confusing or as untethered as her protagonist, it isn’t something she thought too much about while drafting, a stage of her writing process she has always maintained free from outside critique.
Darkness in a Town of Sunshine
By E. M. Powell
Fall is an easy season to love—but if you’re not quite ready for the shorter days and lower temperatures, you can grab a last blast of summer sunshine in the latest in Wendy Tyson’s cozy Greenhouse mystery series, ROOTED IN DECEIT. The small town of Winsome is still basking in the August heat and Megan Sawyer is preparing for the grand opening of their wood-fired pizza farm. Things are heating up in Megan’s love life as well. But like unwelcome flies in the honey pot, Megan’s ne’er-do-well father arrives for a visit with his new high-maintenance Italian wife, Sylvia.
Sylvia is seeking pieces for her boutique and arranges a meeting with up-and-coming local artist Thana Moore. Trouble is, tempers flare between the two. Worse, Thana is later found murdered and Sylvia becomes the prime suspect. Yet Sylvia isn’t the only one who has been in conflict with Thana—Megan also fell out with her many years before, despite their being best friends once. Megan’s past and present lives collide as she tries to find the killer — a killer who isn’t done yet. The suspense builds and holds the reader right to the last pages, just as it has in the first three books of the series.
Fans of the series will also be pleased to see that the world of Winsome is as richly portrayed as ever and is a totally believable setting, something which Tyson takes very seriously. ‘’World building is incredibly important in the cozy genre,’’ she says. ‘’Readers want to open a book and spend time with the characters. The setting, whether an organic farm in a small town, a western writers’ retreat house, an old library, or a big-city bakery, is part of the draw, and in a way, the introduction of murder and other crimes — and the tension and suspense they bring — only serves to increase that attraction. In a good cozy, I think the reader feels like part of the world that’s been so carefully built, so for them, the stakes for solving the mystery are heightened.’’
Finding Trust in the Truth
By Josie Brown
If you’re a novelist, the best way to make lemonade from a lemon of a non-fiction book deal gone awry is to re-purpose it into a thriller that garners numerous enthusiastic reviews and a slot on several bestseller lists. With her latest standalone, TRUST ME, five-time Agatha Award-winner Hank Phillippi Ryan has done exactly that.
Her assignment was to write a true-crime non-fiction narrative on the 2011 Casey Anthony trial for the murder of her toddler daughter. “It was to be like In Cold Blood, but it was also going to be interactive—an eBook with videos and pictures. Innovative and fabulous,” Ryan says.
“Everyone interested in crime fiction, psychology, or human behavior was riveted by the Casey Anthony trial,” she says. “This beautiful young woman from Florida was accused of killing her young daughter, Caylee, and hiding [the body] for several months.”
Considering Ryan’s reporting credentials—33 Emmys and 14 Edward R. Murrow awards as a reporter for Boston’s NBC affiliate WHDH—it was the perfect match of topic and author.
Her process was arduous, to say the least. The trial ran an exhausting six weeks. She watched the court proceedings from start to finish via a special media feed. Says Ryan, “I wrote day and night because I had to have it ready to go. I used three computers: one for the video of the trial, one for research, and one computer for writing the book.”
Ryan didn’t know when the project would end other than knowing her work needed to be ready for publication upon the day of the sentencing. “The verdict was to come on a certain day; two weeks later, she’d be sentenced. And at that moment— they were going to hit ‘SEND’ because clearly she was guilty…”
So much for public opinion, let alone Ryan’s. Needless to say, she was awed by the jury’s verdict: “Not guilty.”
That was Ryan’s first shock. The second was the publisher’s response. “They called and said, ‘You know, we don’t need this now. We can’t print this. She’s not guilty.’ ”
Six weeks of living, breathing, and writing a book went down the drain.
“I thought three things,” Ryan says. “One: How can that be? Two: I just spent every single waking moment of every day writing this book! Now, it’s unusable. It’s going to just vanish into nothingness. And, three: How could I be so wrong? How could I have envisioned exactly what happened with all the evidence so perfectly presented—and the jury disagree?’”
The results fascinated both Ryan the journalist and Ryan the novelist. “Could you get away with murder? But maybe she didn’t. Legally, she didn’t do it. Legally, she’s innocent.”
Warp speed to last year. Even several years later, the trial’s verdict still puzzled Ryan. “It was very compelling, made even more so because my husband is a criminal defense attorney. He’s had his share of hopeless cases—the people who cannot win. Once, he was working on a case that was very iffy: a notorious murder trial. And no one was quite sure whether his client was guilty or not. I heard my husband practicing his closing arguments for this case: impassioned and well thought out. It was a wonderful retelling of what happened. I imagined the prosecutor at home with his wife doing the same thing with his closing arguments: telling the exact opposite story and believing it just as purely.”
Or, as Ryan puts it: “There are three sides to every story: Your side, my side, and the truth.”
At that moment, the idea to do a fictional take on her experience hit her. “I wanted to see whether I could write a novel where I take pieces of evidence and make them mean one thing, and then make the same evidence mean something completely opposite,” Ryan says. “How could that work? What a puzzle that would be! Sue Grafton called it ‘the Magic.’ ”
Ryan had written two series already, and was under contract to write another in her Jane Ryland books. “When the idea for TRUST ME occurred, it was so irresistible to me that I called my agent and said, ‘Listen to this: What if a young woman—a journalist, who was upset and unhappy about her own life—had to write a true crime narrative non-fiction about a notorious killer—alleged killer—and thought she knew what really happened? But maybe she didn’t. But how do you write a true crime book if you don’t know what’s true?’”
The response: “I want that right now!”
And that’s how TRUST ME came into being.
In this psychological thriller, the protagonist, Mercer Hennessey, is contracted to do the same thing: write a non-fiction narrative book about Ashlyn Bryant, a young mother accused of killing her toddler daughter, Tasha.
Whereas this would be a dream project for many journalists, Mercer doesn’t necessarily see it that way. Early on in the book, the reader learns that Mercer left journalism to be a stay-at-home mother and wife. “It was supposed to be a good decision,” Ryan says. “But life doesn’t turn out the way we expect. How do you react when love gets pulled out from under you? I wanted to explore that.”
In Mercer’s case, the tragic deaths of her husband and young daughter put a stop to her storybook life. She knows—and resents—being prodded by her editor to take on the project as a way to get on with the rest of her life.
Instead, it changes Mercer’s view of the world and herself forever.
Whether in the real world or fiction, culling the truth from a source isn’t an easy endeavor for a journalist. “I’ve been a television reporter for forty years,” Ryan says. “I’ve wired myself with hidden cameras. I’ve confronted corrupt politicians. I’ve gone undercover and in disguise. I’ve had people confess to murder. I know what people look like when they lie. My job as a journalist is to get you to talk to me. How far will I go to make you feel comfortable with me so that you tell me things? When we see someone wavering, we reel them in.”
And while journalists are supposed to write an unbiased story, even they can be prejudiced. To do her job properly, there are times Ryan must hide her feelings. “I can’t erase them, but I can’t use my feelings in my story. But, what if I couldn’t hide them? What if my whole perception was so skewed by my own life that I couldn’t keep it out of the story?”
The problem is, the relationship between reporter and subject is fraught with opportunities for manipulation. “They say, ‘X, Y, and Z are true…’ ” Ryan says. “And I have to say, ‘No, it isn’t—and here’s how I know you’re not telling me the truth.’ ”
According to Ryan, journalism is about finding out what you don’t know. “It’s a house of cards; a Jenga tower. If you pull the wrong piece, it all comes crashing down.”
In TRUST ME, Mercer gets an opportunity to do something Ryan wishes she had: work on the book with the suspected murderer.
“What if the actual defendant was in my kitchen and I was talking to her?” Ryan says. “What would she say? What would her motive be? Would she be able to change my mind? Or would she even try? Could my entire belief system be slowly turned, like an ocean liner, to face in exactly the other direction?”
And Ashlyn certainly has an agenda of her own: clear her name. “No matter whatever happens to her, no matter what happens in that courtroom, she’s going to be reviled and hated,” Ryan says. “Everywhere she goes people will look at her and say, ‘Ashlyn Bryant! She killed her daughter…’ No matter what the verdict turns out to be, how do you get rid of that?”
Like Ryan, Mercer is skilled at wooing her subject and hiding her real feelings on how she feels about Ashlyn—well, most of the time. But Ashlyn is just as adept at unpacking Mercer’s personal baggage. Soon she has the journalist second-guessing the trial’s evidence.
Just as importantly, Mercer doubts her personal history. “We all go into our lives with some baggage that we don’t always recognize fully,” Ryan says. “A good journalist understands when they’re crossing the line. But at some point, couldn’t anyone be too vulnerable, too damaged, too psychologically dented, to recognize that they’re going too far? Can they regain their balance and pull back? Can we be persuaded that something is true when clearly it is not?”
Ryan keeps the reader guessing as to what portion of Mercer’s feelings are paranoia, self-doubt, or selfishness. “We’ve all dealt with people—I know I certainly have—who are trying to get you to do something, and convincing you that it’s for your own good; or trying to make you feel guilty in ways that are insidious, subtle, or unpleasant. But we recognize it. Even from the slightest phrasing, like, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want to think…’ Or, ‘Okay, that’s fine…. but that’s not exactly how I would do it…’ That’s a compelling thing: that manipulative passive-aggressiveness that can be very destructive to someone who is a little vulnerable. Those people go after the vulnerabilities of even the strongest people. They have skills in knowing where to poke and prod.”
At this point in the book, these two strong women play a cat-and-mouse game. “The problem is we don’t know who’s the cat and who’s the mouse,” Ryan says.
TRUST ME’s twists and turns are nonstop right up to the final scene.
Ryan smiles when I point that out. “I hope it will keep people turning the pages. That’s what keeps me at my computer each day: writing the next paragraph and the next scene and the next chapter. I want to find out what’s going to happen too. Just like life, the plot could go in a million directions.”
Readers won’t be disappointed. TRUST ME has already been touted “a must read” by Mary Kubica, a “mesmerizing, taut thriller” by Lisa Gardner, and “tense, gripping, completely unpredictable” by Chris Pavone. Librarians all over the country have it on their “must-order” lists.
Some of the most poetic phrases Ryan has in the book are actually Mercer’s thoughts about her life. Ryan has created a character so complex, so injured, and so intensely guilt-ridden that she can’t help but internalize everything Ashlyn says.
Hearing this, Ryan laughs with appreciation. “When someone sees where you’re going as a writer and gets it—well, that’s the joy of my life: to create a world that never existed before, and have it feel real to readers.”
A Dangerous Search for the Truth
By J. H. Bográn
A popular plotting device among authors is to ask, “What if…?” and then follow the rabbit down the hole.
So, what if while treating a personal injury you discovered you don’t share DNA with your parents? That question served as basis for New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison’s new novel, TEAR ME APART.
Competitive skier Mindy Wright is a superstar in the making until a spectacular downhill crash threatens not just her racing career but her life. During surgery, doctors discover she’s suffering from a severe form of leukemia, and a stem cell transplant is her only hope. But when her parents are tested, a frightening truth emerges. Mindy is not their daughter.
The search for the truth will tear a family apart…and someone is going to deadly extremes to protect the family’s deepest secrets. Publishers’ Weekly says that the plot of TEAR ME APART builds to a stunning conclusion, adding, “Ellison is at the top of her game.”
After the success of her book Lie to Me, Ellison needed a follow-up, and decided to take a stab at an idea she’d had in her file for a while. The result didn’t please her. “I felt it was too…nice…to be a J. T. Ellison book. I needed to find the dark edges, tear them open, and crawl inside.”
Out went the original structure and narrative, and within that new frame a whole different voice emerged. A voice that changed the story to exactly what Ellison was looking for. “I’ve always thought of it as Girl, Interrupted, if the girls were grown up. TEAR ME APART is dark, and dramatic, very focused on the ‘why’ behind the crime.”
Discovery of the “Real” Lolita
When discussing a novel, many an author will be only too happy to cite the real person who inspires a character or the news story that sparks the idea for a plotline. But Vladimir Nabokov, no great surprise, wasn’t like other authors. He always denied that the case of Sally Horner, abducted at the age of 11 from Camden, New Jersey, in 1948, inspired his 1955 novel Lolita. Sarah Weinman argues otherwise, in her meticulously researched and movingly written nonfiction book THE REAL LOLITA: THE KIDNAPPING OF SALLY HORNER AND THE NOVEL THAT SCANDALIZED THE WORLD.
In so doing, Weinman became a literary detective, poring through newspaper accounts, visiting courthouses and other sources of documents, and interviewing remaining relatives of those whose lives were forever changed by the Sally Horner abduction. Yet as fascinating—and as troubling—as that crime was, it’s only one part of the book. Weinman also examines Nabokov’s creative processes, finding the parallels to Lolita and probable timeline of influence.
“Lolita is an outstanding work of art and its genesis has incredibly complicated roots, and Nabokov himself is an incredibly complicated man,” Weinman says.
The book’s narratives unfold on parallel tracks: One is the true story of Sally Horner, the 11-year-old daughter of a struggling single mother who was coaxed to go on an Atlantic City “family vacation” by a 50-year-old ex-con named Frank LaSalle, who then disappeared for almost two years on a cross-country horror of rape while hiding from the law. The second is the career of Russian emigree Nabokov, who in 1948 had finished teaching at Wellesley College and was starting at Cornell, and was just beginning the “stop and start” of writing the novel that became Lolita. more »
An Artful Pairing
By Dawn Ius
New York Times bestselling authors Steve Berry and M.J. Rose turn up the heat with a new novella featuring a character that will be familiar to fans of Berry’s work—Cassiopeia Vitt, known to many as Cotton Malone’s love interest in Berry’s long-standing thriller series.
In MUSEUM OF MYSTERIES, Cassiopeia guides readers from the small French mountain village of Eze, back and forth through time, in a thrilling journey that ends with a high stakes chase through the streets of Paris. Intrigue, secrets, mystery, and passion—it’s exactly the kind of story you’d expect when two of the genre greats put their minds—and pens—together, every page bearing the indistinguishable imprint of each author’s hallmark style.
From Berry, taut, fast-paced action that propels us deeper into Cassiopeia’s character, and from Rose, the lush description and magic that fully immerses the reader in a haunting atmosphere rife with romantic tension.
“None of the Cotton Malone adventures have sex in them,” the authors acknowledge. “So adding that element to one of Steve’s stories was certainly something new and different. We didn’t want it to be direct with Cassiopeia, as obviously she has a relationship with Cotton and he’s not an integral part of the story. But the sex worked well in the flashbacks.” more »
The Secrets to Humanizing a Detective
By Dawn Ius
Fresh off the promotion trail of his first literary thriller, The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, Robert Dugoni once again launched into full touring mode last month in order to promote the release of the sixth book in his bestselling Tracy Crosswhite mystery series, A STEEP PRICE.
With such a grueling schedule, the temptation might be to fizzle out—but Dugoni, while physically exhausted, says promoting both books has been invigorating, not to mention an interesting opportunity to learn more about his fans, the bulk of whom seem to have enjoyed both new releases, despite their differences.
“So far, there has been very little complaint from any readers about my switching gears to write Sam Hell,” he says. “The toughest question, honestly, is whether or not there is going to be another literary novel.”
Not something Dugoni can answer with any certainty right now—literary thrillers take more time to gestate, and as an author who tends to pounce on an idea with little thought to plot details, carving out the necessary time for a Sam Hell-esque novel isn’t top of mind.
Into the Wild
By Dawn Ius
Jenny Milchman doesn’t write to formula, but admits that each of her novels share commonalities—ordinary women with believable flaws, husbands that suck, the fictional town of Weedskill nestled among the mighty Adirondack forest, and the vital role that setting and atmosphere can play in creating suspense.
Those factors come together with startling effectiveness in Milchman’s latest release, WICKED RIVER, a standalone wilderness thriller that will give you pause next time you drag out that camping gear.
“It became very clear to me with this novel that I think of the environment as a character,” Milchman says, noting that while the town mentioned in the book is made up, the landscape around it is very real. “The details about the area are pretty accurate—many of them based on some spotty experiences I’ve had in my life.”
That said, Milchman’s stint as a Girl Scout, or a handful of trips downstream in her canoe, don’t fully account for the authenticity in which Milchman brings to life the potential terrors of that vast wilderness world—that depth of truth comes from what can only be described as “sinking into the story.”
For Milchman, that’s the key to a good novel.
Trying to Understand the World
Someone might assume that when Walter Mosley sits down to write a novel—after publishing more than 50 books and winning awards and fame for his art, not to mention those film adaptations—he’s able to manage polishing off a new book without any difficulty at all. But that wouldn’t quite be accurate.
“It’s not a novel unless it’s bigger than your head,” Mosley says. “While you’re working on a novel, it’s so hard for you to know all the stuff about it, but the minute you begin to believe you do know everything, that’s the time when the novel stops being a novel and becomes a plot or a storyboard.”
If you’re wondering if that means Mosley writes his books without a detailed outline first, the answer would be yes. “There is an unconscious agenda reaching through you to write that book,” he says. “It’s not like a blueprint for a new building, because you have to have that or else the building will fall down. This is about human emotions.”
In his new novel DOWN THE RIVER UNTO THE SEA, Mosley has crafted characters of profound emotion. Joe King, the protagonist, is a top-notch black police detective who encounters a moment of temptation and falls. It’s so spectacular a fall that King finds himself in Rikers Island Jail, beaten and broken. Years later, as a private detective, King discovers the agenda behind his disgrace, and sets out to find justice, and redemption, with the help of some of New York City’s outlaws.
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.